As much as I love my chosen field of toxicology, I don’t often turn to it as a topic for leisure reading. However, A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie is a new take on toxicological analysis. Author Kathryn Harkup is both a toxicologist and a fine storyteller. She weaves together the story of Agatha Christie’s life, the horror stories she penned, and the science behind the toxins that killed many in her stories.
The book progresses by addressing a different poison used in Agatha Christie novels in each chapter: chapter 2 is titled “B is for Belladonna”; chapter 3, “C is for Cyanide”, and so on. In each chapter Harkup details how each poison is used, both legally and illegally, and how Christie incorporated them into her novels. She delves deeper into how the poisons function and how they were discovered as well.
Harkup toes the line between dumbing down her topic of study and avoiding the potentially snooze-inducing scientific minutia. On the contrary, interweaving an account of the scientific importance of a compound with some discussion of its historical implications proves a fascinating approach. In each chapter, Harkup takes the reader through how each poison was utilized in each Agatha Christie novel, describing how the victim’s symptoms and death affect the plotline. She again brings in history by comparing these fictional deaths with the deaths of poisoned historical figures, and also describes how the victims’ symptoms correlate with the pathological effects of toxic exposure.
Harkup’s novel is a fascinating combination of literature and science that I immensely enjoyed. You can see my full-length book review of The Poisons of Agatha Christie on American Scientist.