I had such interest yesterday in the post about digitalis that I hope you will indulge my taking the subject of poison a little further today; poison little and often, then!
I’ve said several times that I’m not a blood-and-guts writer. Most of the murders in my books take place off-stage. Sometimes, if it is a cold case crime, the method that the murderer has chosen cannot be established. When murders do happen on set, as it were, I don’t dwell on the details: I don’t describe the brutal physiological results of a stabbing or shooting. I choose not to do this from personal preference and have recently had my choice endorsed by the reading groups whose meetings I have had the privilege to attend. I’m certain that there are readers who enjoy graphic accounts of violence, but I haven’t met many and, in this respect at least, my novels don’t cater for them.
Murders have to come about by some means, even so, and there are many methods I have yet to explore. I guess that if I were to put my imagination to work on them full-time, the possibilities would be endless. The literary canon is studded with outlandish murders, from George Duke of Clarence’s drowning in a butt of Malmsey wine to Hannibal Lecter’s grotesque destruction of his guards and Jo Nesbø’s Leopard’s inventive use of a ‘Leopold’s apple’. Murders tend to fall into categories, nevertheless. And one of them is poison.
Of course there are some famous male poisoners, both in fact and fiction, but, used as an instrument for plotting and arranging death, poisoning is supposed to be a peculiarly feminine choice; think arsenic and old lace as the stereotype. I’m not quite sure why. It’s true that it doesn’t require the force that stabbing, strangling and bludgeoning dictate, nor is it as a rule as messy (though this isn’t inevitable: nux vomica is very aptly named). Yet, if remoteness from the deed is the most prized attribute when the murderer is considering the best MO, shooting wins outright. The victim and murderer don’t have to speak, touch or engage with each other in any way for a fatal shooting to take place. If s/he is careful, the shooter leaves no forensic evidence except the bullet itself; the gun that fired the bullet can be matched to it if discovered, but disposing of a gun is not difficult. This is obviously why shooting is favoured by contract killers, but it demands both a particular skill-set and the possession of a gun, which can be daunting, if you’re not a member of the underworld.
By contrast, poisons are all around us. The average household must contain several dozen potentially murderous poisons, from items that only become dangerous if taken in excess, such as analgesics and alcohol, to paraquat (Susan Barber’s weapon of choice for disposing of her husband, Michael, in 1981), bleach and the multitude of cleaning fluids which are only safe in a domestic setting because the average adult would not dream either of ingesting them or of putting them in the way of the naïve or unsuspecting. Then there is the garden, a veritable hotbed of powerful poisons, from the tall and handsome purple and white foxgloves I wrote about yesterday to the exquisite scarlet yew berries or arils, the seeds in which are highly poisonous, as are the yew’s leaves. One of the best television crime series that I’ve seen was Mother Love, which featured Diana Rigg as the spurned first wife who killed her husband’s second wife with home-made biscuits sandwiched together with mashed yew-berries.
Perhaps I’ve just hit on why there seems to be a particular affinity between poison and female killers. It requires premeditation: a master-plan that is ruthlessly adhered to even as the victim is suffering terrible agonies and could perhaps still be saved by a would-be killer overcome by compassion. The poisoner has to have nerves of steel and a strong motive to murder, as well as excellent organisational powers. Revenge is the most likely motive to have spawned the crime, a revenge born of a long and brooding grievance that the perpetrator has fed and nurtured until the murder seems to be not only an act of justice, but unavoidable. Poisoning is an act of pure malice. No mitigating circumstances can be offered: it is never spur-of-the-moment. It cannot be attributed to a sudden access of anger, outrage or grief, unlike the more ‘masculine’ crimes of shooting and stabbing. In order to get away with the deed, poisoners need to be reflective, good at research, possessed of a chillingly high order of intelligence. I’ve listed some common poisons in the paragraph that precedes this one. Identifying poison is not difficult, but choosing and applying the one that achieves the desired effect before the victim seeks medical help, one that also cannot be traced back to the poisoner, may be tricky. It demands sustained effort, application of knowledge, scrupulous attention to detail and a high IQ.
Consider this for a moment. It is an apt description of many a multi-tasking mother and wife who is running a home and at the same time successfully holding down a job. The only difference is that, typically, she has neither the time nor the inclination to murder. In short, it’s a good thing that most of us don’t carry the murder gene in our DNA. If we did, there would be a population implosion!
After rain and sun, the garden is a gloriously abundant and colourful mini-paradise; great wafts of scent sweep in through the open windows and still evenings are a sumptuous sensory banquet as I wander and fondle leaves and taste the herbs, sniff the honeysuckle and roses, listen to the chatter of the housemartins under the eaves and have my eyes caught and held by bee and moth and bird and flower.
Most striking of all, at this time of year, are the self-seeded digitalis, foxgloves, their pink and white spires climbing to the sky out of the dense green foliage at their feet, graceful forms in the dusk, their finger-fitting flowers even this late sucking in the bumble bees. I recall that every single part of this ‘witch’s gloves’ plant is toxic, with poisonous leaves, stem, flowers, roots and seeds, and find myself thinking of belladonna, the deadly nightshade, and strychnos nux-vomica, the strychnine tree of India, both of which also have the ability in all or most of their parts to kill humans and animals. There are two superbly symbolic passages about the deadly nightshade in L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, where the young and naïve Leo finds himself fascinated by and drawn to a rampant specimen in a ruined outhouse, an emblem of the enduring destructive power of the fabulously-seductive and forbidden adult relationship to which Leo plays pander.
It is interesting, however, that all of these plants, though lethal, are amongst the most potent and efficacious remedies for the homeopath, their toxicity refined almost out of existence by a shaking process called succussion. I consult my materia medica, and remind myself of what I did already know, that, in its homeopathic form, digitalis can be an effective remedy for diseases of the heart, while belladonna works on the nervous system and nux vomica has wide-ranging impact, especially on men!
A crime writer with an interest in natural poisons – in past centuries, I might have been burned as a witch! Now, I might weave such plants into a plot, as L.P. Hartley did so cleverly, and harness the evil within them for a good purpose, like a homeopath. Crime novels are packed with death-dealing stuff, but they clearly have a cathartic purpose and, as a result, are very popular.
Excuse me while I get out my pestle and mortar and crush a bit of digitalis into a story.