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A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie (Bloomsbury Sigma)

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Shortlisted for the 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.

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    Chemist Kathryn Harkup combines her scientific expertise and love of a good mystery in her first book, A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie. B is for belladonna, and C is for cyanide, as Harkup works her way through 14 mysteries and 14 discrete poisons, with meticulous and informed explanations of the science behind each toxin’s effects (an appendix contains chemical structures). Each chapter also details famous real-life cases involving these deadly substances, including those that might have inspired–or been inspired by–Christie’s work, and analyses of how accurately the Queen of Crime represented the science within her stories. Generally the renowned writer does very well: as Harkup explains, Christie worked as a volunteer nurse in World War I and showed such aptitude that she was encouraged to continue her education and training as a pharmacist. By the Second World War, her work as a dispenser left her ample time to pursue her other profession, writing bestselling stories and novels.Harkup’s writing style is accessible to the lay reader, although she does become technical when discussing poisons’ actions on the body, with full detail at the cellular level. She keeps these explanations short, however, and general readers will be able to follow along. For Christie fans, the review of famous mysteries is great fun, and the few spoilers come with ample warning. A Is for Arsenic is both informative science and a spur to read or reread the most popular mysteries ever written. This review originally ran in the September 25, 2015 issue of . To subscribe, click , and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

    Back by popular demand, the Crime and Punishment Blindfold Tank featuring Nina Kate. Photo taken by Anna Swiczeniuk at A is for Arsenic HQ London.