The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Venom

Cottonmouth-largeHow very exciting! The Crime Fiction Alphabet meme has arrived at our twenty-second stop! It’s been a terrific journey thus far, and a lot of the credit goes to our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. Thanks as ever, Kerrie! Today’s stop is at fascinating Valley View Reserve, where you can see all kinds of the most interesting sorts of animals. Everyone is charging up cameras and changing into comfortable shoes, so this is a good time for me to offer my contribution for this stop: venom.

Now, any herpetologist will tell you that snakes get very bad press. And it’s true that there are a lot of snakes that are perfectly harmless, and some that are even  beneficial. But snake venom can be extremely dangerous – even deadly. So the wise person treats snakes very cautiously. Just a quick look at crime fiction should convince you…

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Helen Stoner. She believes her life may be in danger, and tells Holmes an eerie story of the death of her sister Julia. Julia had been hearing strange noises in the middle of the night. Other odd things happened too, and Julia became frightened. Then, just before she died, she said some very cryptic things that Helen hasn’t been able to figure out. Now Helen is hearing the same weird noises at night, and wants Holmes to investigate. Holmes and Watson travel to the Stoner home Stoke Moran, and settle in for the night. It’s not long before Helen’s life really is in danger and the sleuths will have to act quickly if she’s to be saved. And what’s the weapon? What killed Helen Stoner? Snake venom.

In Rex Stout’s Fer de Lance, we meet Maria Maffei, whose brother Carlos has disappeared. Everyone thinks he’s gone back to Italy, but Maria doesn’t believe that. So she visits Nero Wolfe to ask him to investigate. Not long afterwards, her worst fears are realised when Carlos is found murdered. Evidence that he had in his possession suggests that his death is connected to the sudden death of Peter Barstow, president of Holland University. Barstow apparently died of a stroke while out on a golf course but it’s not long before Wolfe establishes that he was killed by a specially-designed golf club. Maffei had made the golf club, not realising that it would be used for a murder. When he found out and threatened to tell what he knew, he was killed. It turns out that the golf club used in the murder was rigged to deliver an injection of snake venom, and that’s what actually killed Barstow. Now Wolfe and Archie Goodwin have to find out what the connection is between Maffei and Barstow, and who would have wanted the victim dead.

Agatha Christie’s  Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) is the story of a fateful flight from Paris to London. On that flight is Marie Morisot, a French moneylender who does business under the name of Madame Giselle. During the flight, she suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are her fellow passengers, so Chief Inspector Japp looks among them to find out who would have a motive. Since Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, he helps Japp and between the two of them, they find out the truth. It turns out that the murder weapon was venom from the boomslang snake. Not something you’d normally expect to find on a flight from Paris to London, but in this case, the murderer finds a way.

London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) is accustomed to some strange crimes, and the crimes we see in Christopher Fowler’s Seventy-Seven Clocks are no exception. First, an unusual man dressed in Edwardian-style clothes damages a valuable painting while on a visit to the National Gallery. Then, attorney Maximillian Jacob is in the lobby of the Savoy Hotel, reading a newspaper, when he falls asleep. A few hours later one of the staff tries to wake him, only to find that he’s been fatally wounded. Forensic reports show that he’s been bitten by a snake, and the venom has killed him. There are other strange occurrences too and murders, and it’s up to Arthur Bryant and John May to find out what connects those murders with the incident at the National Gallery.

And then there’s S.J. Bolton’s Awakening. In that novel, wildlife veterinarian Clara Benning finds herself mixed up in a bizarre series of events in the small village where she lives. She works at The Little Order of St. Francis, a wildlife hospital, and has a special interest in and expertise with snakes. That knowledge proves vital when one of Benning’s neighbours finds an adder in her baby’s crib. Then, John Alington, another neighbour, dies of what seems like the bite of another adder. But it’s not so simple as that. Allington’s blood is found to have much more venom in it that would be expected from one snake bite. So Benning begins to suspect that he’s been murdered. ACC Matt Hoare is officially in charge of the case, but he knows that Benning is an expert with snakes. So he relies on her as they investigate.

You see? Snakes are fascinating, but they are probably best admired from a distance. Now then, time for a tour of the reserve. Shall we start with the Reptile Building?  😉


ps.  This is one of the few ‘photos on my blog that I haven’t taken. This is a picture of a cottonmouth snake – not a fella you want to get too close to…  Thanks, Philadelphia Zoo!!


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christopher Fowler, Rex Stout, S.J. Bolton

22 responses to “The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Venom

  1. Margot your post have remind me of Intituto Butantan in Sao Paulo. From Wikipedia: The institute contains a venom farm where researchers milk around a thousand snakes for their venom which is used to make antivenoms and for medical research. You can read more at I visited it once while I was living in Sao Paulo.

    • José Ignacio – Thanks very much for that information. I didn’t get to that part of Brazil when I was there, but that sounds like a fascinating place to go. Thanks for sharing; you were lucky to have visited it.

  2. I can think of only a few mysteries that involved poisonous snakes – you named two of my favorites (the Holmes and Wolfe stories). I seem to remember Arthur Upfield’s DI Napoleon Bonaparte stepping on a snake in one of his mysteries set in the outback – and Bony nearly dies from it. Poison from a snake also plays a role in one of Van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries. And I suspect Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu used poisonous snakes (and insects) in more than a few instances!

    • Les – Oh, those are great contributions! And you’re probably quite right about Dr Fu Manchu. I have to confess I’m less familliar with that series than I am with other series, but I’m pretty sure he’s familiar with snake venom – oh, and insects too. I’m glad too that you mentioned the Judge Dee series; I must spotlight one of those books!

  3. Untraceable South American poisons are always supposed to be a feature of murder stories (along with ‘the butler did it’) but in fact aren’t that common. My contribution is an early Ruth Rendell book, To Fear a Painted Devil, where bee/wasp stings are an important part of the plot…

    • Moira – Oh, I thought To Fear… was a fabulous book. And you’re right; it’s a different kind of venom but no less important to the plot. Thanks for reminding me of one of Rendell’s very fine standalones. And it’s funny you’d mention that about untraceable poisons. Christie makes fun of that trope in a few of her stories (including Death in the Clouds, where there’s a comment about it.

  4. Some great choices there Margot – I would add the classic Carter Dickson novel, HE WOULDN’T KILL PATIENCE, as a snake-filled favourite 🙂

  5. kathy d.

    That Sherlock Holmes book was one of my first forays into the great detective’s cases, setting me off on a life of crime fiction reading. And Nero Wolfe’s first case in Fer-de-Lance was a good one, tantalizing enough to whet any mystery fan enough to keep on reading about his investigations.
    Awakening I’ve thought of reading, but the snake theme is a bit too much for this reader who keeps a respectable distance from the critters.
    Venom as a murder method is one thing; dealings with snakes another. Not my cup of tea. Brrr at the thought! I’ll stick to mammals.

    • Kathy – You’re not alone. There are plenty of people who keep a respectful distance away from snakes. That said though, I must completely agree with you about both The Adventure of the Speckled Band and Fer de Lance. Both are classic stories and both were part of my indoctrination 😉 into crime fiction too.

  6. Snakes really creep me out. Even if I know they’re not poisonous. I think it’s that silent slithering. A crime fiction novel with snakes in? I’m not sure I could take it!

    • Rebecca – I know what you mean. They do move around in that, well, sneaky sort of way. And then of course there’s the fact that they can be dangerous. I know of people who have them as pets – not something I’d be keen to do.

  7. These are all good examples of death by venom. I can, however, recall a couple of instances of unnatural deaths caused by poison, as in “The Vulture is a Patient Bird” by James Hadley Chase in which some of the characters die after wearing a poison-filled ring with a hidden needle that springs out.

    • Prashant – How very clever – a poisoned ring! I have to admit to a certain kind of respect for people who can invent that kind of murder. Some of those stories do stretch credibility, but they are really inventive.

  8. You have included my favorite mystery ever, Fer-de-lance. I have also read the Christopher Fowler book. Sounds like I should try those other books and stories too. Another great contribution to the Crime Fiction Alphabet, Margot.

    • Tracy – Thank you. I like Fer de Lance a lot myself. It’s a great story and an interesting mystery. And I like Fowler’s work too, as you know. I hope that, if you get the chance to try the other stories, you’ll like them.

  9. Margot – great post on a creative approach to murder. When I first saw the word ‘venom’ I thought it would be a post on malice or spite in crime novels, especially malicious language. But I guess there’s venom and then there’s venom ☺ In any case in regards to the latter form there’s plenty of that in the mystery novel, in fact one might consider it a requirement!

    • Bryan – Thanks for the kind words. And I like the way you put that about venom. Yes, indeed, I can’t think of a lot of mystery novels in which there is no figurative venom. And it’s interesting you’d mention that sense of the word, because I wondered whether I should think of another title for the post – for clarification. But venom does start with v
      As for the literal venom, I respect authors who do that plot point well. It takes a deft hand to set up a believable premise for someoen to have access to snake venom.

  10. Was watching Emergency today there was a cobra loose in an apartment. One guy was bit and the other had a heart attack.

  11. Nearly at the end of the alphabet! The Speckled Band is one of my favourite Holmes stories too. I could re-read it today, no problem.

    • Sarah – So could I. It was one of the first Conan Doyle stories I read (the first was The Red-Headed League fittingly enough 😉 ) And yes, only 4 more letters to go!

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