Tuesday, July 5, 2016

TUESDAY NIGHT BLOGGERS: What's Your Poison?

There is poison in the fang of the serpent, in the mouth of the fly, and in the sting of a scorpion; but the wicked man is saturated with it. -- Chanakya (Vishnu Gupta)

Poisoning is one of the most varied of the murder methods -- at least when it comes to fictional murder. With a killer at the end of a gun or knife or bludgeon the victim often knows who did them in. With poison, however, the victim may never know his or her assailant. A poisonous death often comes slowly over time, with a cruelty that surpasses even the most wicked of torture methods. And poisons come in myriad forms not just the top three (arsenic, strychnine, cyanide) that mystery novel addicts would call familiar. Often the most benign substances can turn deadly in the hands of a knowledgeable poisoner who is acquainted with simple biochemistry or botany or the horrors of anaphylactic shock. This month the Tuesday Night Bloggers discuss poison -- that most passive aggressive, and IMO opinion the most evil, of murder means.

Here's a sampling of some of the more nightmarish methods of poisoning I've encountered in detective fiction. In some cases I'll mention specific titles and authors, but where the murder method is intended as a surprise I'll not mention the title.

X-rays The discovery of x-rays took place in the late nineteenth century with the development of the x-ray machines led by Thomas Edison shortly following in 1895. The most innovative and diabolical of writers seized upon this new scientific discovery and recognized the dangers of radioactivity and its possible fatal consequences. The earliest known use of x-rays and x-ray machines as a fictional murder method come in not only early British scientific romances of the 19th century but genuine detective fiction. L.T. Meade & Clifford Halifax made use of an x-ray machine as a means to kill in "The Sleeping Sickness" published in October 1896 and later appearing in the extremely rare story collection A Race with the Sun (1901). Alfred Dorrington in The Radium Terrors (1922) holds back no surprise in the title while the exact plot device used in Dorrington's novel shows up a few years later in The Haunting Hand (1926) by G. Adolphe Roberts. Other examples include The X-Ray Murders (1942) by M. Michel Scott and a 1934 book by an American writer reviewed elsewhere on this blog.

Bacilli - Various uses of bacteria have been used in lieu of chemical poisons. A shaving brush infected with anthrax, one of Christie's better known uses of exotic poisoning, occurs in Cards on the Table (1937). Bacteria are the choice of the mad killers, potential murderers, or revolutionary anarchists in "The Stolen Bacillus" (1898) by H. G. Wells, The Microbe Murders (1933) by Frederick G. Eberhard, and "The Flock of Geryon" found in Christie's Labors of Hercules (1947). Perhaps the most disgusting bacteriological murder method once again comes from the pen of Dame Agatha. The infecting of a supposedly clean dressing with pus from a cat's wound which eventually led to the victim succumbing to septicemia can be found in a book I refuse to name, but many of you I am sure know well. I know of one novel in which the rabies virus is used to kill but the discovery of that means is used to shock the reader in the final pages and so I'll not name it. Cans of green beans are tampered with so as to allow botulism to occur and kill several people in Alisa Craig's A Pint of Murder (1980). Which I think will provide a nice segue to the very rich vein of...

Botanical Toxins In my reading I've learned all sorts of horrifying things related to the deadly properties of plants. Digitalis, used to treat heart conditions, has toxic properties when extracted directly from its plant source foxglove. Its use as a poison is found in many mystery novels of the Golden Age. Other popular botanical poisons employed by writers include aconite derived from wolf's bane, gelsemine found in yellow jasmine and not only are the flowers and leaves of oleander crammed full of deadly toxins so is the wood. Some barbecue skewers made from oleander branches are substituted for the harmless wooden skewers in Please Omit Funeral (1975) by Hildegard Dolson (Richard Lockridge's second wife) resulting in the death of an author of "dirty books" after he eats his shish kabob cooked on the oleander sticks. Yew berries may be harmless to birds but can be fatal to humans as Rex Fortescue learns in Christie's A Pocketful of Rye (1953) as well as the victim in Rest You Merry (1978) by Charlotte MacLeod.

Sinners Go Secretly (1927), the only short story
collection with Dr. Eustace Hailey. Includes
"The Cyprian Bees" and "The Black Kitten"
Venom To be accurate the poison found in animals, insects and arachnids is called venom and often it's not intended to kill but to anesthetize the prey while the predator enjoys its lunch or dinner. Mystery fiction has made use of all sorts of venom as an exotic murder method whether it be employing the animal itself or extracting that venom and injecting it into the victim or adding it to the victim's food. Sax Rohmer was a fan of spiders and venomous insects in many of his books. "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" is perhaps the first time a snake is used to kill someone in detective fiction. A boomslang's venom is found on the dart that kills in Death in the Clouds (1935) by poison expert Dame Agatha. The use of spider venom occurs The Washington Square Enigma (1933) by Harry Stephen Keeler. Bee venom turns up in Anthony Wynne's "The Cyprian Bees" (1926) in which the murderer takes advantage of the victim's allergic reaction to bee stings. In another apiarian murder tale a mad scientist finds a way to control the pheromones of bees in order to swarm on command in A Taste for Honey (1941) by H. F. Heard. The deadly venom of the fugu, the Japanese blowfish, kills a woman in Sayonara, Sweet Amaryllis (1983), one of the fine detective novels from James Melville featuring his Japanese detective Tetsua Otani.

If that isn't enough for you, let's wind up this macabre discussion with a simple yet enticing list:

Poison Introduced by Bizarre Means
Cat Claws - "The Black Kitten" (1927) by Anthony Wynne
Furniture - The Fangs of the Serpent (1924) by George R. Fox
                 The Human Bookcase Mystery (1931) by William Morton
Automobile Steering Wheel - The Shadow of Evil (1930) by Charles J Dutton
Surgery - The Nursing Home Murder (1935) by Ngaio Marsh
Cigarette Lighter - Facing East (1936) by Andrew Soutar
Jewelry - "The Toys of Death" (1938) by G. D. H. & M. Cole
Bird Beaks - "A Great Whirring of Wings" (1943) by Day Keene
Fishing Lure - Bleeding Hooks (1940) by Harriet Rutland
Musical Instrument - Death, My Darling Daughters (1945) by Jonathan Stagge

10 comments:

  1. I love all the bizarre poison methods, John. Now you've got me longing for more books again (and I've got about 17 birthday present books on their way to me by mail right this minute...).

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  2. The "cat's ear as murder weapon" is one of my favorites, John. The rabies one sounds horrifying! I agree with you: poison is the ickiest and cruelest of murder weapons!

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  3. Great post. Enjoyed reading about the more unusual poison methods, cat claws and bird beaks are definitely bizarre, as are x rays. Though you know have me wondering how you poison someone with x-rays? Is it just to do with radioactive elements of the machine?

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    1. In the books and stories I've encountered "x-ray poisoning" an x-ray machine is placed against the victim's work space or bedroom and the machine is turned on at a very high dose of radiation and aimed at a vital organ. There is probably an element of science fiction in actually causing such a swift death. In reality the victim would get extremely ill, receive burns and irreparable scarring, and probably end up with life threatening cancer. If the exposure to x-rays were not discovered early on then death would come, I imagine, after several months if not years.

      The closest to a murder using radioactivity I know of in real life was the horrible plutonium poisoning of the Russian spy. Of course he ingested the plutonium and it proved very fatal as well as being a health hazard to everyone on that airplane where he was a passenger.

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    2. Heck! That's quite a brutal way to go. Though it would be interesting to see how you would disguise an x ray machine, as I imagine they are quite big items.

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    3. No disguise was necessary in the two books that I clearly remember. The machine was in the next room where the exams or testing took place. Each day/night it was aimed at the victim's desk/bed and turned on, then shut off at night or day when the victim went home from the targeted work space or woke up in the morning from the targeted bed.

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  4. Amazing collection of really rare poisons/poison methods/books there - your knowledge is (as ever) sweeping...

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  5. Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose features an unusual way of administering poison. Bibliophiles might forgive it, though. Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedies feature all kinds of strange and lethal devices: not just poisoned swords or drinks or poison poured into ears but poison on the lips of the skull of a murdered woman for example.

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  6. Don't forget Ngaio Marsh's Death at the Bar - poison administered via a game of darts!!

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    1. OK, I won't! I think I need to go back and read more Marsh because she had a penchant for bizarre murder methods. Several Marsh titles I have yet to read turned up in an article I stumbled across in my research. I've read about 80% of the books listed here, but of course it's just a small sampling of what I felt were the very odd murder methods. There could be an entire book about this and not just related to poison.

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