You Can’t Make This Stuff Up by Sarah Albee
I’ve been fascinated by poison ever since I was a kid and first heard Snow White. As a teenager, I devoured Sherlock Holmes stories and Agatha Christie mysteries. Their plots are chockablock with poison. Both Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie were not just excellent mystery writers—they did their research.
Conan Doyle was a physician. In the heavily-annotated pages of his medical textbooks, he describes the effects of various poisons. Here’s his darkly poetic description of the symptoms of slow arsenic poisoning:
Vomiting—plenty of stools
Pain in the stomach & bowels
Pulse Wiry. Forehead feels stuffy
Eyes are red and are puffy,
The Last of the symptoms may seem a,
Slight one, and that is eczema.
Agatha Christie was trained as a nurse and worked as a dispenser for an apothecary during both World Wars. In her stories, she shows an in-depth knowledge of strychnine, phosphorous, thallium, morphine, atropine, ricin, and all sorts of others. And she researched symptoms, side-effects, and the time they took to act upon the body.
Then I got to college, and fell for Shakespeare. I don’t have to tell you English teachers, but Shakespeare definitely knew his poisons. Take this passage:
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witch’s mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock, digg’d i’ the dark…
Fun fact: it’s likely that the “tooth of wolf” refers not to the animal, but to the plant known as wolfsbane, containing the alkaloid aconitine, which is so toxic that a few grams can kill a person.
And speaking of ghastly deaths, I still shudder whenever I recall the scene in Madame Bovary, when (spoiler alert) a despondent Emma Bovary scoops up a handful of arsenic trioxide and crams it into her mouth. She thinks she’s in for a swift and gentle death. But Flaubert spells out her last hours in gruesome detail which, because I’m me, I will now share with you: she vomits blood. Her face turns blue. She exhales a “metallic vapour.” She convulses and shrieks and breaks out in brown spots all over her body, before expiring with her blackened tongue lolling. Flaubert’s realism is nothing if not . . . realistic. He later said he vomited twice while writing that scene.
Nerdy friends, because you are readers, you will understand: Who could be better to plumb the dark side of the human psyche, to consider what motivates a person to act fiendishly, than fiction writers? They are the scientists of the mind. It was those fictional stories about poison that led me to my topic. My love for science and history prompted me to find out how poison actually works, and who might have been a real-life victim, or a real-life poisoner. Fiction writers ask “what if?” Nonfiction writers ask “how?” and “why?”
To research the book, I had to re-learn a lot of chemistry. It was important to me to understand and explain how poison works deep down at the molecular level. I enrolled in online courses in chemistry and forensics, and I consulted with my science-teacher friends (ok, I hounded them).
Also, I faced a formidable research obstacle: gathering firm facts. I mean, think about it—poisoners in history are largely unnamed and unknown. These shadowy figures weren’t exactly writing tell-all accounts of their escapades. You can either be a famous poisoner, or a successful poisoner, but not both.
So it wasn’t easy to determine whether or not someone like Queen Hatshepsut or Napoleon or Stalin had been poisoned, let alone who their poisoner might have been. But there’s an upside to this problem: the uncertainty of these cases turned out to be an excellent way to show kids that history is not black-and-white. History is full of ambiguities, and there are always different points of view. I did my best to present what facts I could, and asked the reader to draw her own conclusions.
And here’s the coolest part: everything has come full circle. Imagine my pride when a modern-day fiction writer friend consulted me for suggestions about how to kill off one of her characters! Nancy Werlin and I went back and forth about the merits of aconite versus atropine, Here’s part of our exchange:
It became even livelier, with much talk of vomiting and diarrhea, but I’ll spare you those details because I made you read about Emma Bovary.
Here’s the cover of Nancy’s new book, coming out in June. Did I mention I’m an “expert consultant?”
And now, dear Nerdy Readers, I am super excited that I can finally show you the cover of my book, which comes out September 5th. I wanted you guys to be the first to see it. I hope you like it!
Sarah Albee is the author of many nonfiction books for children, including Why’d They Wear That? (National Geographic), Bugged: How Insects Changed History (Bloomsbury) and Poop Happened; A History of the World from the Bottom Up (Bloomsbury). She loves history, science, reading fiction, and grossing kids out at school visits.
We are excited to give away three advanced readers copies of Poison. To enter please fill out the form below. You must be at least 13 to enter the giveaway. Winners will be randomly selected.