Reading Resolution: “A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie” by Kathryn Harkup

12. A non-fiction book:  A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup

List Progress: 4/30

Mystery authors love a good poison. They put distance between the murderer and the victim, they present the question of what poison was used as well as who used it, and they generally have less gory outcomes than a death by stabbing. Famous and incredibly prolific mystery author Agatha Christie used countless poisons throughout her various works, and given her own background in pharmaceuticals, she was quite accurate in depicting the symptoms and outcomes of different types of poisonings. So when chemist and author Kathryn Harkup sets out to go through the alphabet of Christie’s poisons, there is a lot to cover. A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie tells the stories of fourteen different poisons, both from a scientific, a literary and a criminal perspective. The book walks a fine line keeping things accessible to lay people but in-depth enough to impart some actual chemistry, with just enough macabre stories to keep it fun.

The book starts with a quick biography of Christie’s time as an apothecary assistant in World War 1, where she got a lot of the medical knowledge she would later use in her writing. Each chapter then focuses on a specific poison and a specific Christie work, though some poisons (like the titular arsenic) make many appearances in her canon. Harkup details where the poison comes from, then takes a very technical view in the “How ___ kills” section: Harkup’s chemistry background is clear as the book focuses down to a molecular level, and these are the parts most likely to be skimmed by non-scientists. The chapter then pulls back out to describe real-life poisonings, both before and after Christie’s time, and outline how the poison plays into the Christie work itself. Harkup mostly avoids spoiling any of the Christie novels, but some do require a bit of (well-warned) spoiling to reach Harkup’s argument about how well the poison is depicted.

A is for Arsenic is clearly going to appeal to a niche set of interests. A reader would have to be at least fond of murder mysteries, if not Christie specifically, as well as weird medical trivia to get anything much out of it. But the book accomplishes what it sets out to do, offering a bit of science blended into a larger dose of art. For those who want some strange, occasionally squishy information, Harkup has put together a very fun collection.

Would I Recommend It: Yes.

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