Thursday, May 30, 2013

Pick Your Poison

I used poison as a murder weapon in Fallen From Grace and have utilized it again in Sooner Than Gold.

Poison has a long and respected place in the history of crime fiction. Agatha Christie employed poison in her first novel, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” and it was her weapon of choice in some 60 other fictions. Dorothy Sayers was equally fond of poison as a means of dispatch, as was John Carter Dickson, master of the locked room mystery, and even Arthur Conan Doyle.

Thinking of Lucrezia Borgia and some other early examples, some might consider poison as more suited to women as a weapon. In fact, an equal number of male murderers have turned to poison in preference to the gun or other weapons. For example, Thomas Neill Cream, Frederick Seddon and William Palmer, who some believe to have been Christie’s inspiration for that first novel.

The writers mentioned above (and many of the actual murderers) leaned toward chemical poisons, such as arsenic, strychnine and cyanide. I utilized arsenic in Fallen From Grace, since it was so readily available to our ancestors.

There’s nothing wrong in utilizing these time-honored tinctures, though one must be careful and provide the assassin with adequate medical knowledge. Some critics have challenged Christie on the qualification of the conspirator in that first and famous novel.

In Sooner Than Gold I decided to take a more natural turn. The Tilghman stories are set in an agricultural/mining community in the 19th century. Our rural ancestors were more inclined to forage in field and forests and many were familiar with a variety of plants with uses both benign and deadly. Since the cast of characters includes gypsies who have an even more extensive knowledge of such things, this particular plant seemed a perfect choice.

Growing up in a similar environment and fond of roaming the forest in my youth, I’ve long been fascinated by the many uses of plants most regard as mere weeds. This provides a fertile field for utilization in my stories and I’ve made frequent use of natural poisons over the years.


I’m sure this will not be the last time I dispose of a character by means of poison.

23 comments:

  1. Check out "The Poisoner's Handbook" by Debra Blum

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    1. Good recommendation, Dac. I also like an older one--"The Book of Poisons" by Gustav Schenk.

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  2. So many ways to kill a character. :)
    From what I've read on the subject, most experts claim that, statistically, men and women use different methods to commit murder. For example, some say that poison is most often used by women while men prefer using a weapon. Obviously, that's not always the case. I'll be interested to discover who used poison in "Sooner than Gold."

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  3. My takeaway from this: don't tick John off! :)

    My uncle used to take my cousins and me on nature walks when we were kids. He'd point out the good and the bad plants. And I have a relative who's a mushroom expert (although I never ate any that he said were okay, just to be safe). There are a lot of fascinating ways to kill off characters and nature provides us with many, many means.

    Great post!

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  4. I was under the impression that women kill more often with poison. Interesting to learn that is not true.
    I like poison (for fiction killing) and used it in my first short story. I had read an article about a family that accidentally poisoned themselves with the seeds of the Datura plant (the white flowers that often grow along the highways) and was inspired.

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    1. So many ways to kill. Who needs a gun?

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  5. Poison is a good choice. But my wife was not excited when I bought a book on poisons and how to use them to kill people. Now I worry if she accidentally gets poisoned, I will be - as always - the prime suspect. Oh well, that's the life of a mystery writer. Thanks, John, for enlightening us. But don't invite me to dinner at your house. Not that I scare easily, but ...

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    1. The spouse is always suspect. But Jim, you know you have an open invitation to dine with me. No more threatening than, say, Hannibal?

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  6. Excellent post, and some great comments, too. I haven't used poison to kill anyone off yet, but that may not be far off. The mind of a mystery writer can be an interesting place to visit.
    Marja McGraw

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    1. Thanks, Marja. We are indeed a devious clan.

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  7. I've never written a novel that involved poison--usually kill in a more violent way. However, my true crime, Killer Nurse, involves the use of poison. Well sort of. The nurse injected patients with bleach.

    She almost got away with this. Bleach is very difficult to detect and it can't be with normal toxicology.

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    1. Killer Nurse is on my way-too-big TBR list, John. Thanks for commenting.

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    2. Hi John,
      Nice blog. Lucky you, wish I could write these crime novels. Think of the power it gives you to kill off people.

      I always thought poison was the weapon most favoured by women.

      Cheers

      Margaret

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    3. Thanks, Margaret. People need to tread lightly near us crime writers.

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  8. Never really thought about this John. I'm so used to guns in my profession that it seemed "natural" to kill characters with one. The stuff I see Mexican cartels do to people in real life should NEVER be repeated....I like your methods. Fascinating stuff.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Chris. I've used the gun (and knives) in other books. My current WIP employs a blunt object--haven't identified it yet.

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  9. Very enlightening to read about the methods to kill characters. I've never written a mystery, and I haven't knocked off any of my real-life characters yet in essays or memoir (and if I did I wouldn't write about it). I agree with Marja that the mind of a mystery writer can be an interesting place to visit.

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    1. Yes, if you made that admission in a memoir you'd be in big trouble.

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  10. I think I'd enjoy researching poisons...so much to learn and so many ways to kill off a character! Thanks for posting.

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