Deborah Blum — my favorite expert in the fine art of poisoning — writes a fascinating piece about the way mystery writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers approached the chemistry in their stories with an almost mind-blowing accuracy. Not only did they get the symptoms of specific poisons correct, they were actually describe common chemical tests and techniques right in the narrative.

12 Responses to “Read mystery novels to learn chemistry”

  1. I’ve always thought that novels were an underutilized method for teaching.  My favorite mechanical physics primer is Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Rendezvous with Rama’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rendezvous_with_Rama

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  2. spamky says:

    She mentions the quote “Abortion stops a beating heart.” On the drive from Fort Collins to Denver some church put up a billboard that says “Abortion stops a beating ♥” but the heart picture was so faded it looked like it said “Abortion stops a beating.” I couldn’t help but giggle every time I drove by

  3. If it’s chemistry in mystery novels you want, you need to check out ‘The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie’ by Alan Bradley (which won the 2007 Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award). His eleven year old heroine, Flavia de Luce, is a talented chemist. 

  4. cellocgw says:

    Ummm,  did it ever occur to you that the writers took the time to do some research and get advice from chemistry (or murder investigation) experts?   It’s a fracking story!   And for every writer who does his/her homework, there’s plenty who just plain make shit up, so woe betide he who trusts fiction as a source of genuine education.   Ditto for technology in sci-fi.  Some of it’s amazingly accurate and some is off the wall (not counting normal “suspension of disbelief” for things like warp drives).

  5. smut clyde says:

    Dorothy Sayers consulted a Dr Eustace Barton for toxicology advice, to the extent of crediting him as co-author (under his pen name) of “The Documents in the Case”.

  6. Clint Barker says:

    I remember in Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, a character asks Dr. Sheppard about poisoning, though I can’t remember with what. Dr. Sheppard tells her she reads too many bad mystery novels.

  7. johnrynne says:

    There is also Asimov’s “A whiff of death” (aka “The Death Dealers”), a murder mystery set in a chemistry lab. But he had an unfair advantage — he was a biochemist.

  8. Christie had a head start in her poisoning training. As a V.A.D. worker during World War I, she worked in the dispensary at the Red Cross hospital in Torquay. In an 1891 pharmacy textbook, she found the poisoning method she used in her first book, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles.” She also met a creepy pharmacist who liked keeping the poison curare in his pocket because it made him feel powerful, which she used in “Pale Horse” a half-century later.

  9. James Penrose says:

    There’s a novel here….if not already done of course, about a mystery writer whose novels are so accurate because she/he actually commits the murders in the novels first to get all the details ‘right”..

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