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What’s your poison? Poisoning in crime fiction

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George Orwell named nine cases in his essay on the ‘Golden Age of Murder’; six of them are poisonings. So what is it about poisoning that delivers such delicious horror to the writer and reader of crime fiction?

For me, it’s the fact that the poisoner has to be close to the victim, and may even be a family member, and because poisoning subverts all our cultural beliefs about food. Food is meant to nourish and restore; we use the phrase ‘comfort food’ to show how food nurtures our mental as well as physical health. How creepy, how insidious then, to transform the substance that’s meant to sustain into something intended to kill.

Poisoning is the epitome of premeditation. It takes thought, time and cunning to devise a way to poison someone. The poisoner is cold-blooded indeed to make these preparations. Having administered the poison, the poisoner needs nerves of steel to watch their victim eat it, and then watch them suffering a long, painful and protracted death, even sometimes being called on to nurse their victim.

The golden age of murder

When we think of poisoning, we tend to think first of the golden age of murder, and the cases that gripped the nation, and which still interest us today. Cases such as Madeleine Smith, the young woman from a well-to-do Scottish family, who was charged with killing her lover with arsenic-laced cocoa. She was tried under Scottish law, and found not proven – neither guilty nor not guilty.

Another sensational arsenic poisoning case was Mrs Maybrick, who unwisely soaked fly papers to extract the arsenic to make a face wash to brighten her complexion. Unfortunately when her husband died of arsenic poisoning, the finger was pointed at her, though later it was discovered that her husband was an arsenic eater, taking increasing doses of the stuff daily to improve his constitution.

Far from poisoning being a ‘woman’s crime’ (though it’s often spoken of that way), many of the infamous poisoners from the golden age were men: Seddon, who killed his lodger to get his hands on her gold; Armstrong, who administered poison to his nagging wife; and Crippen, who silenced his wife with hyoscine.

There are common elements to these cases that spark the imagination: the closeness of the poisoner to the victim, the initial incorrect diagnosis of gastritis or stomach flu, the exhumation and testing of the body, and the fact that arsenic remains in the body, a finger pointing to foul play. Add in the big characters of the time like the barrister Marshall Hall and pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, and a domestic drama is transformed into national obsession. For a crime writer, these highly emotional set-pieces are almost irresistible.

Contemporary plots

But is poisoning only for the golden age of murder? If you’re writing a contemporary crime novel, what does poisoning offer as a method of murder that you don’t get from shooting, stabbing or strangulation?

Firstly, you get more choice over the time of death. In poisoning, symptoms may take a while to appear. Though some, like cyanide, are instantaneous, some deadly poisons may take days before the victim realises something is wrong. For example, it takes up to five days before symptoms of paraquat poisoning occur, and several days after that before the victim dies. This gives the crime writer an opportunity to muddy the murder timeline and bring in a few red herrings, as it will be impossible to determine exactly when the poison was administered.

Poisoning also gives you, the writer, some choice over the symptoms and appearance of the corpse. You might want the symptoms to look like an illness such as a heart attack, to confuse all the characters except the savvy detective. Don’t forget that no one will test for a poison unless there is a suspicion to do so, and an idea of what to test for, so your fictional murderer might initially get away with it until the weight of evidence grows.

Alternatively, you might want dramatic, frightening or bizarre symptoms to raise the tension in the story. Your victim might be found with a blackened face (silver nitrate poisoning), yellowed skin (nicotine), or suffer pre-mortem smoking breath and faeces (phosphorous).

A word of advice

I’ll finish by offering some advice about picking the perfect poison, based on my experiences researching and writing my novel Paternoster. My advice is, if you’re writing a crime novel based on poisoning, decide on your poison early in the planning stages of your novel, and check the symptoms, time line for reaction, and appearance of the victim, because it might just change the direction of the story.

Paternoster is set in Cheltenham. Initially, the plot concerned murders at an exclusive introduction agency, and the poison I wanted to use was mistletoe, partly because of the connection between mistletoe and kissing (yes, the working title was ‘Fatal Kiss’), but also because the trees in Cheltenham hang heavy with mistletoe and I wanted a uniquely Cheltenham brand of murder.

However, when I researched mistletoe, I was disappointed to find it wasn’t fatal (unless you scoff a ton of it and I couldn’t see the victim falling for that) so I had to find another poison. Off I went to my writers’ big book of poisons, and browsing through the pages, I came across a deadly poison, little known yet easily available, which was used traditionally in trial by ordeal. Thinking about this poison set me off on a different plot about secret societies in contemporary and Georgian Cheltenham.

So if you’re writing a crime novel, and are looking for a different slant, forget about stabbing and shooting, and ask yourself, ‘What’s your poison?’

By Kim Fleet

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