Book Review: A is for Arsenic

Harkup, Katheryn. A is For Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie (print edition)

No muss, no fuss, a little powder in a drink, or a bit of liquid added to hot coco, and someone stands to gain an inheritance, or conceal a secret. Poisons are a standard in murder mysteries, and Dame Agatha Christie’s books set the gold standard. Dr. Katheryn Harkup takes a chemist’s eye view of Christie’s work, looking at the most common “inheritance powders” and liquids found in the novels and plays. Along the way the reader learns a great deal about forensic science, biochemistry, criminal history, and when to avoid taking tea or accepting a dinner invitation from eager relatives.

Harkup begins with Christie’s bona fides. Agatha Christie studied pharmacology (as we would say today) during WWI, reading dispensing in order to work in a compounding pharmacy. She stayed current, re-took and re-passed the examinations to do the same in WWII, and incorporated what she learned into her novels, beginning with  Mysterious Affair at Styles. Christie rarely went wrong with her toxins, although as Harkup points out, she sometimes accelerated both the demise and the detection for the purposes of fiction.

Harkup begins with arsenic, one of the most common and readily available poisons in the early 20th century, working her way through the alphabet to Veronel, a barbiturate. Along the way the reader encounters familiar names such as cyanide and strychnine, garden-variety poisons from monkshood, foxglove, and belladonna to opium, and industrial toxins such as phosphorus and  thallium. With three exceptions, Harkup provides no spoilers, and those spoilers are well-marked with options for skipping over them and getting back to the science.

And science there is in full. Harkup has a PhD in biochemistry and is not afraid to use it. Readers learn exactly how the various toxins do their deadly deeds. If all you want is interesting bits about Christie’s writings, you can skip the medical sections, but Harkup does a very good job of explaining the how and why in terms a lay-reader can follow, if the lay-reader is willing to pay attention to details. You will find a great deal of medical and industrial history in the book, something I found fascinating but others might not. I also found myself nodding at familiar names, because foxglove, aconite, and poppies have been grown (or planted and then given full funerals) in the garden at Redquarters. And because I have, on occasion, been known to point out to rabid advocates of “all natural” lifestyles that arsenic and other toxins occur in nature without any assistance from humans.

I recommend the book for fans of Agatha Christie’s writing, people interested in how a writer uses medical knowledge, and those curious about toxicology in fiction. The chapters are self-contained and the book is easy to read in bites and nibbles. It is probably not something you want to be seen studying during cooking class, however, or in the presence of annoying in-laws and former lovers.


I did not receive any remuneration for this review. I borrowed the book from the public library.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: A is for Arsenic

  1. Ah yes, “all natural”. A few years ago, a young lady at a mall kiosk was aggressively trying to get me to put on a sample of the lotion she was selling. I explained that my husband was sensitive to the fixative used in most perfumes and I didn’t want to risk triggering an attack.
    “But it’s all natural” she said.
    “So’s poison ivy” I replied.

    • I once overheard someone asking at a cafe near Flat State U if the nuts in the muffins were organic. “I’m allergic to tree-nuts, but if they’re organic, I’m sure I’ll be fine.” Even “Dr. Granola” (health-food fanatic) in the booth by the back door groaned.

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