A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie

  • By Kathryn Harkup
  • Bloomsbury USA
  • 288 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jill Yeakel
  • October 13, 2015

An enjoyable, alphabetical overview of the renowned mystery writer's frequent weapon of choice.

A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie

The cover of A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie is sure to draw in readers with its clever design. And once they open it, author Kathryn Harkup will engage them by exploring the toxins Christie, one of the most famous mystery writers in history, so creatively — and frequently — employed as murder weapons in her novels.

Harkup’s writing style will appeal to laypeople and experienced toxicologists alike. In each chapter, the author explores a different one of Christie’s preferred poisons, describing its origin, mechanism of action and effects, antidotes, and true-life cases of its use.

It’s interesting to learn throughout the book how poisons’ availability, detection, and use have changed over time. Each compound is thoroughly investigated, demonstrating the author’s training and extensive chemistry education. (In places, however, Harkup goes on irrelevant tangents, which can be distracting and tedious.)

The book begins by describing Christie’s life and her involvement in pharmaceuticals via her volunteer work as a nurse, as well as her studies as an apothecary’s assistant. It’s fascinating to learn about her experience in dispensing medications, which clearly played a large role in her choice of “weapon” for each fictional victim.

(For anyone unfamiliar with Christie’s work, there is valuable insight provided here, including the fact that she was a founding member of the Detection Club during what was deemed the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction.”)

Harkup then chronicles each poison in alphabetical order — and by using a Christie story as a jumping-off point. The toxins range from metals to plant alkaloids to prescribed medications, allowing the reader to gain insight into the diverse effects exhibited by different chemicals.

After describing the poisons — including belladonna, serine, and the titular arsenic — Harkup explains the toxicity of each compound and how it is able to kill. The treatment of exposure is discussed, too, before the author delves into real-life cases (several of which Christie herself drew on).

Finally, Harkup explains Christie’s use of the poison, her exacting description of its effects from ingestion until time of death, and whether or not the poison would’ve been detectable during the period in which the respective novel takes place.

A Is for Arsenic offer a comprehensive review of each poison and details not only how it affects a person, but also its availability and the feasibility of its use in committing murder. Harkup has clearly done her research.

Overall, this engaging book provides an enormous amount of information about known toxins and an eye-opening look at several not-so-obvious ones (such as nicotine, which is fairly lethal). As she quotes Paracelsus: “Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.”

As Agatha Christie well knew.

Jill Yeakel earned her Bachelor of Science in biology and chemistry from Lock Haven University. She then attended Arcadia University, where she earned a Master of Science in forensic science and was awarded the Fredric Rieders Family Renaissance Foundation Award for academic excellence. She is currently the laboratory manager at Lehigh Valley Toxicology. She has also previously worked at the Armed Forces Medical Examiner’s Office, where she was a part of the certification of the Special Forensic Toxicology Drug Testing Laboratory. She is currently a research scientist on a National Institute of Justice Grant entitled “Identification and Prevalence Determination of Novel Recreational Drugs and Discovery of Their Metabolites in Blood, Urine and Oral Fluid.” She was recently awarded the Irving Sunshine Award from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences for her outstanding research in forensic toxicology.

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