25 January 2018


  • format: Kindle (Amazon)
  • File Size: 5347 KB
  • Print Length: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Sigma; 1 edition (September 10, 2015)
  • Publication Date: September 10, 2015
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • Language: English
Synopsis (Amazon)

Shortlisted for the BMA Book Awards and Macavity Awards 2016

Fourteen novels. Fourteen poisons. Just because it's fiction doesn't mean it's all made-up ...

Agatha Christie revelled in the use of poison to kill off unfortunate victims in her books; indeed, she employed it more than any other murder method, with the poison itself often being a central part of the novel. Her choice of deadly substances was far from random – the characteristics of each often provide vital clues to the discovery of the murderer. With gunshots or stabbings the cause of death is obvious, but this is not the case with poisons. How is it that some compounds prove so deadly, and in such tiny amounts?

Christie's extensive chemical knowledge provides the backdrop for A is for Arsenic, in which Kathryn Harkup investigates the poisons used by the murderer in fourteen classic Agatha Christie mysteries. It looks at why certain chemicals kill, how they interact with the body, the cases that may have inspired Christie, and the feasibility of obtaining, administering and detecting these poisons, both at the time the novel was written and today. A is for Arsenic is a celebration of the use of science by the undisputed Queen of Crime.

My Take

This is an encyclopaedic work written authoritatively by a scientist who obviously loves her Agatha Christie novels. I have to admit to getting a bit lost in some of the more technical/scientific sections but really enjoyed the analysis in each chapter of whether Agatha Christie got it right.

Each chapter is headed with the name of a poison (Arsenic, Thallium, Veronal etc) attached to the plot of a particular novel. We get the historiography of the poison, how it works on the human body, real-life examples of its use, whether there is an antidote, and then an in depth treatment of the way it is used in the novel. Quite often the sleuth is Hercule Poirot.

Of interest too will be Appendix 1: Christie's Causes of Death, a table listing all of the Agatha Christie novels and short stories in order of publication, and the cause of death in each of them. My Kindle Paper White didn't handle this graphic all that well, but my iPad reader does better.
For the technically minded there is Appendix 2: structures of some of the chemicals in this book.

By no means a quick read, but an interesting one from many points of view.

My rating: 4.6

About the author
Kathryn Harkup is a chemist and author. Kathryn completed a doctorate on her favourite chemicals, phosphines, and went on to further postdoctoral research before realising that talking, writing and demonstrating science appealed a bit more than hours slaving over a hot fume-hood. For six years she ran the outreach in engineering, computing, physics and maths at the University of Surrey, which involved writing talks on science topics that would appeal to bored teenagers (anything disgusting or dangerous was usually the most popular). Kathryn is now a freelance science communicator delivering talks and workshops on the quirky side of science. 

1 comment:

J.P. Choquette said...

This sounds so good! I just purchased a book called, "Fashion Victims," which is all about the different toxic materials/chemicals used in early fashion. Definitely want to check this one out though--big A.C. fan and this book is right up my alley. Happy to have found your blog, too, and looking forward to reading more.


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