I Love a Good Poisoning…
By Sarah E. Glenn
When Gwen and I sat down to plot Murder on the Mullet Express, we had already chosen a method of murder: poison. Perhaps it would be better to say that I had already chosen the method of murder, because I am a poison enthusiast. I am no toxicologist or physician, nor am I a chef, which should bring you great relief. I just find poisons… interesting.
The choice of an interesting poison for a story can add to the enjoyment of the reader… at least this one. Agatha Christie, the grand dame of mystery, used her pharmacological experience to great effect in her tales. The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a special favorite of mine where poisoning is concerned.
Strychnine is a dramatic poison. The victim is seized with violent spasms and convulsions, and in the final stages the entire body bends backward in one huge arc. The risus sardonicus – the rictus grin on the dead victim’s face – also plays well in visual media. Most authors, Christie included, don’t become too graphic with their depictions, but Stephen King had no problem with describing it in Mr. Mercedes. Then again, it was Stephen King.
The poisoning at Styles rises above other tales of poisoning because of the clever method used to divert suspicion. Strychnine used to be used in tiny, tiny doses in tonics because of its stimulating qualities. The killer introduced a bromide into the mix, which caused the strychnine to precipitate to the bottom of the bottle – creating one awful dose that would be taken while the killer was conveniently busy at his (or her) alibi.
Arsenic poisoning, on the other hand, is best portrayed off-screen. The major symptoms are vomiting and diarrhea, which are rather off-putting. Arsenic is more interesting for its uses than its misuses. Arsenic seems to have been in everything before the authorities put a lockdown on it. It was used to harden metals (hello, lame blacksmith archetype), to improve health in tonics like Fowler’s Solution (I sense a pattern here), plus it made a dandy green wallpaper. You could even buy it in wafers to improve your complexion! There were also people referred to as ‘arsenic eaters’, who were reputed to have built a tolerance to (and even a need for) the poison.
Dorothy Sayers used arsenic eaters to great effect in Strong Poison, where a shared meal kills one man and not the other. Sharyn McCrumb flipped the idea over in If I’d Killed Him When I Met Him… when a wife kills her husband by not feeding him arsenic. I’ve admired McCrumb’s inventiveness since her story with the anthrax in the bagpipes.
Some authors invent interesting poisons on their own. Robin Cook, a physician known for his medical thrillers, developed a good one in Mortal Fear. A colleague of the hero is involved in research to learn why salmon die shortly after they spawn. His intent was to identify the ‘kill switch’ and develop an antidote which might then be used to prolong human life. Instead, someone takes the information about the ‘kill switch’ and uses it to murder patients who have become inconvenient. The method of introducing the poison is equally clever and drawn from Dr. Cook’s knowledge.
The poison I chose for Murder on the Mullet Express, savin, is less well-known but fitting to the story. Agatha Christie said that her stories stemmed from a ‘crime before the crime’, and ours does, too. Its primary use hints at that crime, and points to the motive of the killer.
Gwen Mayo is passionate about blending her loves of history and mystery fiction. She currently lives and writes in Safety Harbor, Florida, but grew up in a large Irish family in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. She is the author of the Nessa Donnelly Mysteries and co-author of the Old Crows stories with Sarah Glenn.
Her stories have appeared in A Whodunit Halloween, Decades of Dirt, Halloween Frights (Volume I), and several flash fiction collections. She belongs to Sisters in Crime, SinC Guppies, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, the Historical Novel Society, and the Florida Authors and Publishers Association.
Gwen has a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Kentucky. Her most interesting job, though, was as a brakeman and railroad engineer from 1983 - 1987. She was one of the last engineers to be certified on steam locomotives.
Website URL: http://www.gwenmayo.com
Blog URL: http://gwenmayo.blogspot.com/
Facebook URL: https://www.facebook.com/Gwen-Mayo-119029591509479/
Amazon Author page: http://www.amazon.com/Gwen-Mayo
Sarah E. Glenn has a B.S. in Journalism, which is a great degree for the dilettante she is. Later on, she did a stint as a graduate student in classical languages. She didn’t get the degree, but she’s great with crosswords. Her most interesting job was working the reports desk for the police department in Lexington, Kentucky, where she learned that criminals really are dumb.
Her great-great aunt served as a nurse in WWI, and was injured by poison gas during the fighting. A hundred years later, this would inspire Sarah to write stories Aunt Dess would probably not approve of.
Website URL: http://www.sarahglenn.com
Blog URL: http://saraheglenn.blogspot.com/
Facebook URL: https://www.facebook.com/Sarah-E-Glenn-177315008966709/
Twitter: @SarahEGlenn and @MAHLLC
Amazon Author: http://www.amazon.com/Sarah-E.-Glenn/e/B004P3MI2Q