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Poisons and Poisonings - Tony Hargreaves

There was a time when artists who had, for example, never seen a rhinoceros, would draw a rhino based only on a description. The result was certainly interesting - but equally like no rhino you've ever seen. There's something about this book that makes it feel like a popular science book written by someone who has never seen one. Even the way Tony Hargreaves describes it in his introduction 'This book is written in the style of popular science, rather than of an academic text' underlines this. It's also sometimes rather old-fashioned, ignoring any tendency to gender neutrality. We read 'Mankind was then faced with a new and serious problem Whilst enjoying a reliable food supply, he also had to suffer the problems of pestilence and disease.'

It's a strangely quirky text. It's probably best thought of as a kind of encyclopaedia of poisons, but not arranged alphabetically (although both poisons and poisoners are revisited briefly in alphabetical order at the back). It tells us plenty about the different poisons and how they act, from biological poisons and poisonous chemical elements to synthetic alternatives. And it does, as the title suggests, include stories of poisonings and poisoners. But these don't act as a framework for the whole - instead they come in occasionally. And that emphasises the book's biggest flaw as a popular science book - it has no narrative flow. It is a collection of facts, an awful lot of fact statements, which is what gives it that encyclopaedic feel. 

I have no reason to assume that the author doesn't know his stuff - there's no author biography I could spot, so we don't know his background - but in a couple of contextual remarks it feels a little under-researched. For example, we are told that the nursery rhyme Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses refers to the Black Death, a once popular assumption that now is generally discounted. More strangely, we are told that laudanum was 'frequently taken by the fictional character Sherlock Holmes.' Yet laudanum only appears to be mentioned once in the Holmes books (and there in reference to a secondary character) - cocaine was Holmes' drug of choice.

Overall, then, not a book I'd recommend to read from end to end, but could prove useful as a quick reference on poisons if you want a non-technical exploration of a wide range of options - ideal for a crime writer, for example, to get some inspiration on how to do away with their victims.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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