A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup is a thorough examination of the poisons Agatha Christie used in her many mysteries. Harkup not only lists the poisons, she writes about their history, their chemical composition, their potential medical uses, and the presence or absence of antidotes. She writes knowledgably and with a dry, understated humor that leads to double takes and frequent pauses to read paragraphs out loud.
Each chapter gives the name of the novel(s) or short stories the poison was administered in, a quick look at the poison’s history, usually including medical uses, a real-life case or two in which the poison was used, the symptoms of the poison, the structure of the poison, the medical uses and abuses of the poison, and any treatments for the poison before going back to take another, more detailed look at its use in the book. As Christie was a pharmacist and careful researcher and Harkup herself has a PhD in chemistry and has done an impressive amount of research for A is for Arsenic, the book is a horrifying and riveting look at just how poisons work. Harkup’s prose is strong and she leavens her writing with wry asides and footnotes, making the work worth reading purely for the style.
While mystery aficionados, particularly readers of Christie, will appreciate the book deeply, it is also readable by those who have not picked up any of Christie’s work yet. Harkup’s explanations and histories are worthwhile reading on their own.
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie is recommended for all those who love mysteries, for many who like history, and for anyone with any shred of the morbid in them (Be honest, that’s all of us, right?). With Christmas coming all-too-soon, you may want to consider picking up a copy for your sweet, saintly Miss Marple of an aunt as well as for yourself.