Skip to main content

A is for Arsenic - Kathryn Harkup ***(*)

As someone who writes a lot about quantum physics, where systems can be in more than one state at a time, I want to give this book a superposition of star ratings: it's a beautiful book, excellently researched and painstakingly detailed, which gets it a solid four stars, but the nature of the contents makes it more like a mini-encyclopedia, rather than something that reads well from end to end, hence the three stars.

The book has a lot of promise to hit the spot. If, like me, you are interested in both science and crime writing, a study of the poisons used in Agatha Christie's books seems a natural fascinator. Kathryn Harkup takes us through a whole range, from familiar favourites (as it were) like arsenic and strychnine to more unusual possibilities like nicotine, phosphorous and ricin. Each poison has its own section, where we learn how Christie used it, how the poison works, what's an antidote (if anything), real life examples of using the poison and then return to Christie for more details of the way that the poison fits with her plots.

We start with some really interesting biographical material on why Christie was so good on the subject of poisons (she was trained as a pharmacist's dispenser), and once we settle down into the individual poison sections there is some genuinely fascinating material, particularly in the real life poisonings. But the repeated format does become a trifle tiresome after a while. This particularly applies to the bits that describe how the poison attacks the body (which can be somewhat repetitious) and also when Harkup describes the Christie plots - not because these are spoilers (though sometimes they are), but more because descriptions of novel plots are almost always tedious to read.

I am reminded of the two different ways books have approached the elements of the periodic table. Some work through element by element - and reading such titles gets to be a bit of grind. But others, notably Sam Kean's excellent The Disappearing Spoon, are story driven and meander around without the same rigid structure. That approach is so much better to read because even non-fiction books need a narrative to be readable, and an encyclopedia-like repeated format can't deliver that.

So there's nothing wrong with this book. It is beautifully made - one of the most elegant popular science books I've ever seen with a gorgeous textured cover and elegant chapter heading graphics. And Harkup combines some interesting stories of real life poisoning with a generally light and highly readable tone. But the format naggingly gets in the way of this being a true popular science masterpiece.

All Agatha Christie fans, and many with an interest in poisons and true crime will enjoy the book and will want it in their collection, but it could have been even better.



Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…