Author: Kathryn Harkup
Finished on: 24 July 2016
Where did I get this book: Bought from the Waterstones cabin at Buxton festival this year (one of the themes of which was murder. Goodbye book-buying ban.)
My sister and I went to see Kathryn Harkup speak about this book at the Buxton festival, in conversation with Hugh Fraser who played Captain Hastings in the BBC David Suchet Poirot adaptations. Murder geek heaven. I have to admit that most of the people I spoke to about my plans for that afternoon seemed to think that going to a talk on the use of poisons in the novels of Agatha Christie was an unusual and surprising way to spend my time. Even those who enjoy Christie do not necessarily want to indulge in this level of specialist exploration of plot minutiae. In the words of my brother-in-law’s friend who was visiting them for the weekend: “Wow, your wife has some pretty niche interests.”
But we were not alone. There was a full theatre of people for this talk (and in fact my sister and I may have been the least weird people there if some of the amazing but worryingly macabre and imaginative questions that people asked in the Q&A session at the end were anything to go by.)
It was a splendid afternoon. And (Great Scott!) we managed to have our picture taken with Captain Hastings – quite a thrill, there may have been a small element of geeking out at this point.
Harkup was fascinating on Christie’s background, her knowledge of poisons, and how she applied this extensive knowledge in her books. Turns out that basically there’s no such thing as a poison; often the same chemicals can be used as medicine and poison, it’s all in the dose. Christie was trained as a dispenser of medicine in a chemist’s shop, and understood this well. Her knowledge is so reliable that her novels are read by pathologists training in toxicology. It is all good stuff. So I bought Harkup’s book. It would’ve been rude not to.
And the further depth of information in the book is great. As well as the insight into Christie’s use of poisons in her plots, what I really enjoyed was the information giving context: the history of each poison’s use and real crimes committed using them. Above all, A Is For Arsenic is a treasure trove of very very interesting facts.
Arsenic eaters were often found so well preserved, even after twelve years, that they were recognisable to family and friends when they were disinterred. The presence of arsenic in corpses may lie behind some vampire legends, which began in central and eastern Europe.
When tomatoes were first introduced into Britain people recognised their similarity to the deadly nightshade and refused to eat them, thinking the fruits were poisonous. Displays of tomato-eating were arranged to reassure the public.
Probably my favourite section of the whole book contains detailed instructions on how to use a range of poisons to create a Haitian-style zombie. Brilliant.
A Is For Arsenic feels like it has been written just for me, it seems so tailored to my interests. But it would hardly make sound business sense to publish a book with a potential audience of one. So finding it (and going to see the author speak) makes me feel like I am not alone. My interests may be niche (and there’s nothing wrong with that) but it is nice to know that there’s enough of us snuggled into this niche to fill a theatre and make the publication of this brilliant book profitable. Hurray.