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Poisons have been favourite weapons of writers since Ancient times. Successful poisoners were stealthy and clever, leaving no trace of a crime and adding to the mystery of the plot. Before the 19th Century, poisons were not just a problem for the victim, but also for the authorities. With no way of testing for poisons in a dead body, it was hard to pin the crime on anyone. Many poisonings also went undetected as the symptoms were so similar to natural causes, that probing questions weren’t asked. Early poisons mostly came from plants or venomous animals. This meant would-be poisoners had to conceal plant materials in food or drink, or engineer an opportunity for their victim to be bitten or stung. In the 19th Century, chemists developed new ways to purify natural sources to make potent pills and powders, and poisoning became much easier. Deadly poisons such as strychnine and arsenic could be bought from pharmacists for ‘pest control’ with few reliable records being kept of who was buying what. This was the heyday of poisonings, and many murder mystery writers started to incorporate poisons into their plots around this time. During the same period, chemistry was catching up with the killers, and tests for poisons at the scene of the crime and in the body were being developed.

Agatha Christie’s books feature many very realistically portrayed poisonings, but this book is not about crime fiction, it is about the poisonings that happen in romances, tragedies, sci-fi stories, gothic novels, political dramas, spy thrillers, ancient epics and even children’s tales. It is also written through the lens of a forensic toxicologist who has handled many real-life cases of poisoning, and features substances that are still seen in deaths today. This book looks at 11 case histories from fiction and examines how realistically the poisonings have been portrayed. In some cases, the writer gives us the identity of the poison (including morphine, strychnine, mandrakes, digitalis, oleander, snake venom and mercury), but in others we will need to use forensic toxicology to help us identify the chemical culprit. For the earlier works of fiction, such as Shakespeare’s plays, we will look at the medical knowledge of the day, along with the symptoms, to draw our conclusions. This book also looks at the methods used to detect poisons in modern forensic toxicology laboratories (spoiler alert – you can’t get away with murder), even in cases where the victim is long dead and buried.

This book is not intended as an academic textbook, but might be of interest to those studying fiction or creative writing. If you are interested in forensic science, hopefully this book will give you an insight into how real poisonings are investigated by forensic toxicologists. For more information on many of the poisons and techniques used, a Glossary is provided. If you are a budding author, I hope you can gain solid scientific inspiration for your next poisonous plot. Towards the end of each chapter, we will look at real forensic toxicology cases from around the world involving each poison. Ranging from injecting mercury as an aphrodisiac to suicide in a car with a cobra, to sports doping with strychnine, we will see that real life is sometimes even stranger than fiction.

Hilary Hamnett

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