A is for Arsenic is a look at the variety of poisons Agatha Christie used in her stories. Christie had trained as a dispenser during the war and she used this knowledge to create elaborate poison murder plots, which were mostly extremely accurate. Her first novel was even reviewed with high praise for its accuracy by a pharmacology journal. Poison was a favourite method of dispatch for Christie, as she knew so much about them, whereas she would readily admit she knew next to nothing about guns, which is why she used those so rarely in her stories.
The book looks at a number of different poisons and as well as looking at how they were used in the books, Harkup also looks at their discovery, chemistry, uses, detection, treatment and real life poisoning cases. Harkup covers a wide variety of Christie books and although there were a couple of incidences where she warned she was going to reveal ‘who dunnit’, as she discussed how the poison was used in the books and to skip ahead to the next chapter if you didn’t want to know, her general discussion could be considered mildly spoilery. For example, Harkup’s discussion of Appointment with Death reveals how the poison was administered, her description of the book made me want to read it, which I did and knowing in advance how the murder victim was going to get her dues, when in the book it took a while for the characters to figure it out, did take a little bit of the fun out of it.
Other than being an interesting background read to Christie’s novels, Harkup also provides some interesting general facts that appealed to this science nerd. For example, in the chapter about cyanide Harkup discusses how it can be released from the burning of natural products, so therefore a number of smoke inhalation deaths in house fires are actually caused by cyanide poisoning. And in the chapter about digitalis Harkup discusses the theory that Van Gogh’s yellow period and his starry night paintings could have been caused by his doctor prescribing him digitalis, as it can cause a yellow tinge to vision and blurring. In the chapter about phosphorous Harkup discusses how unsafe matches were before safety matches were invented, safety matches are made from red phosphorous, which is more stable, whereas originally matches were made with white phosphorous, which was so unsafe they could ignite just from the friction of being carried in your pocket or even being trodden on! And in the chapter about thallium, which was used in Christie’s 1960s book, Pale Horse, Harkup discusses how Christie was criticised for bringing a then little known poison to light (as in it could give people ideas), however years later the Pale Horse book was credited for saving the lives of at least two people poisoned by thallium, as people around them who had read the book, recognised the symptoms.