Well, I’ve bought my ticket and packed my bags and I’m off on another thrilling and chilling journey through the alphabet with the 2013 Crime Fiction Alphabet meme. I am delighted to be a part of this meme, so capably led by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. I’m sure she’ll keep us safe throughout the journey, won’t you Kerrie? Won’t you?????
We start our journey of course with the letter A and my contribution is…arsenic. Arsenic is closely associated with classic and Golden Age crime fiction, but it also turns up in more modern crime fiction too. Today of course it’s easy to test for arsenic, but that doesn’t mean it’s never used. Arsenic used to be readily available in a variety of products and its symptoms are similar to those of several gastric disorders, so at least in earlier eras it wasn’t always easy to identify arsenic poisoning. And even now it’s not immediately suspected. Little wonder it was the ‘poison of choice’ for a long time.
For instance, in Agatha Christei’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), Elspeth McGillicuddy is on her way by train to St. Mary Mead to visit her friend Miss Marple. Another train passes in the same direction and Mrs. McGillicuddy happens to glance through her window into the other train. What she sees horrifies her: a man is strangling a woman. She alerts the conductor and later the station authorities but no-one believes her. Even the police don’t believe her; after all, no-one has reported a missing woman and no dead body has been found. The only person who does believe Mrs. McGillicuddy is Miss Marple. She does her own research and deduces where the body must be: on the grounds of Rutherford Hall, the home of the Crackenthorpe family. So she arranges with her friend professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow for Lucy to take a job at Rutherford Hall and do some sleuthing. Sure enough, the woman’s body is discovered and the police are called in. Since the body was found on the Crackenthorpes’ property, each member of the family comes in for suspicion. Then one day Lucy cooks a lunch that seems to sicken everyone. It’s discovered that the food contained arsenic, but the dose was small enough that slowly, everyone begins to feel better. Then, one of the family members suddenly worsens and dies from the arsenic. Miss Marple puts that event together with the earlier murder and figures out who the killer is and what the motive is.
Dorohy Sayers’ Strong Poison also features arsenic. Mystery novelist Harriet Vane is on trial for the poisoning murder of her former lover Philip Boyes. She had motive too as they had quarreled recently. She also had the means; her explanation is that she had purchased arsenic for research for a new novel. But the Crown is convinced that she intended to use the arsenic as a murder weapon. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial and becomes smitten with the defendant. In fact he determines to clear her name so he can marry her. When the jury can’t agree on a verdict, a new trial is arranged and Wimsey gets his chance. With help from his friend Katherine Climpson and his valet Mervyn Bunter, Wimsey finds out who really poisoned Philip Boyes and why.
In Rex Stout’s novella Poison à la Carte, Nero Wolfe gets a visit from millionaire Lewis Hewitt, a former client. Hewitt is a member of a gourmet group called The Ten for Aristology, and he wants to ‘borrow’ Wolfe’s chef Fritz Brenner to cook the group’s annual dinner. Wolfe and Brenner agree and the meal is duly planned and prepared. At the meal, to which Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are both invited, the guests are served by a group of Broadway actresses who are called, for this occasion, the Hebes. Each guest gets individual service from one of the Hebes. Then suddenly one of the guests Vincent Pyle dies of what turns out to be arsenic poisoning. Fritz of course is suspected but it soon comes out that there are several other suspects. Pyle was a Broadway ‘angel’ who knew more than one of the Hebes. And the other members of the Ten for Aristology aren’t exactly above suspicion either. In the end Wolfe figures out who had and took the opportunity to poison Pyle’s food.
Dashiell Hammett’s short story Fly Paper begins when Major Waldo Hambleton hires the Continental Detective Agency to track down his missing daughter Sue. Sue has been mixed up for some time with very shady people and has basically cut off communication with her family. But her father is wealthy and wants to know that she is safe. Then, Hambleton gets a request for money from his daughter and the agency sends one of its detectives to the address mentioned in the letter. The address turns out to be that of Joseph ‘Holy Joe’ Wales, whom Sue has recently begun seeing. That’s how the detective discovers that Sue has also been involved with a thug named ‘Babe’ McCloor. When the PI finally gets to Sue’s own place it’s too late; she is dead of arsenic poisoning. Now the case has changed from a missing person’s case to a case of possible murder – or was it suicide?
One of the more famous short stories featuring arsenic is Roald Dahl’s The Landlady. In that story, Billy Weaver has just arrived in Bath to start a new job after a trip from London. He’s on his way to spend the night at the Bell and Dragon when he notices a small bed-and-breakfast residence. On impulse he stops in. His landlady makes him welcome and although she seems a little eccentric, she also seems pleasant enough and the lodgings are comfortable and welcoming. So Weaver decides to stay there. Then as he’s signing the guest book, he makes an odd discovery. There are two other signatures there that somehow seem familiar to him. Bit by bit he works out who they are, but by then, well…read the story for yourself.
Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher has to deal with a case involving arsenic in Cocaine Blues. She travels from London, where she’s been living, back to her native Melbourne at the request of an acquaintance Colonel Harper and his wife. They’re concerned about their daughter Lydia, who hasn’t been at all well lately. What’s more, they suspect that their son-in-law is shady enough to be up to no good. So they ask Fisher to look into the matter. She agrees and when she gets to Melbourne, she starts circulating among the social group that includes Lydia. Slowly she uncovers what’s really going on with Lydia and her husband, and that it involves arsenic. She also finds out how that case is linked to illegal cocaine trafficking.
And then there’s Barry Maitland’s Dark Mirror. In that novel, KI Kathy Kolla and DS David Brock investigate the case of Marion Summers, a young undergraduate student who suddenly collapses and dies at the London Library in the West End. As they begin their work they find out several unusual things about the victim. She’d left – escaped, really – a difficult home life to try to make it on her own in London. That of course brings up the question of whether someone in her family might be involved in her death and the detectives discover some unhappy truths about the family. Then there’s Marion’s research into Victorian artist Gabriel Rossetti. At first the fact of her research doesn’t seem to mean much beyond explaining her presence at the library. But then the coroner’s report shows that she died by arsenic poisoning. In today’s world that’s unusual although it was common in the Victorian Era. So Kolla and Brock have to look through Marion’s research work and life as a student as well as her complicated personal life to find out who the killer is.
See what I mean? Arsenic as a theme runs through a lot of crime fiction; I’ve just scratched the surface here really. While you think of your own suggestions, may I get you a cup of coffee??
As you can tell, this is a really exciting journey! Want to come along?? You know you do. Get your own ticket and join the meme right here.