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The Elements of Murder – John Emsley ****

This darkly framed book is subtitled “a history of poison”, which on its own is a bit misleading, as it’s actually a history of elements that have been used as poisons, omitting many poisons that aren’t based on pure elements and some highly poisonous elements (such as plutonium) that haven’t been used as such (unless you count the TV show, Heart of Darkness).
In niggle mode, I was slightly surprised to be told that molten antimony has the unique property of expanding as it solidifies – the same is, of course, true of molten ice.
However, that shouldn’t distract from the fact that this is a very readable and intriguing plunge into the history of our relationship with these darkly dangerous chemicals.
John Emsley is at his best when he is plunging with gusto into a historical tale of poisoning and intrigue – for example the romantic if gruesome story of the lengthy (and eventually successful) attempts to poison Sir Thomas Overbury in the early 1600s, not for some Machiavellian political end but because he was interfering with the marital intentions of Frances, the daughter of Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk, and she was not a woman to be trifled with.
Sometimes a little less effective are the details of the poisons themselves and how they work, which can get a little repetitive, but Emsley brings us back to the stories with enough regularity that there’s always a little more you’d like to read.
It may seem that the detail of murder stories isn’t exactly in the best interests of popular science – but books like this have to be readable, and the inclusion of these stories makes this an even more effective book than still interesting but occasionally a little worthy study of the effects of arsenic, Venomous Earth.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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