Friday, April 22, 2016

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit—Part 1: Digitalis

Classic mysteries often use poison as a murder weapon. Agatha Christie was a master poisoner, and she knew her stuff, since she had worked as a pharmacist. 

Christie used poison more than any other mystery author and, there's even a book on the Poisons of Agatha Christie, by research chemist Kathryn Harkup.

I think there are a number of reasons for the popularity of poisons in classic British cozies.

1) The genre was born in the UK where guns are not as easy for murderers to get their hands on as they are in the firearm-obsessed US.

2) Brits are more likely to have gardens than guns,
especially in the picturesque little villages where homicidal horticulturists and vengeful vicars can pile up the body count. 

3) Poison deaths can happen offstage, since the drama is about getting the poison into the victim, not actually witnessing the death. Cozy mystery fans are always grateful for this. We don't like a lot of blood.

Digitalis purpurea drawing by Franz Köhlern
4) Poisons are often not suspected or detected, so poisoners can be serial killers without anybody suspecting them for years. 

5) They allow frail little old ladies to kill people politely with a nice cup of tea.

6) Poisons are more varied
and intriguing than guns. Some of them are prettier, too.

I do use guns for some of the murders in the first Camilla mystery, Ghostwriters in the Sky. But that's because it's all about the mythology of the American cowboy. Cowboys gotta have their guns.
But in Sherwood, Ltd, in which Camilla goes to England, there are several poisonings (sorry, I couldn't fit in an arrow-shooting. It would have gone better with the Robin-Hoody theme, I realize.)

In Sherwood, the poison used was digitalis, which comes from from the common garden flower, foxglove (digitalis purpurea.) All parts of the plants are poisonous. People have actually died just from drinking the water from a vase that had foxgloves in it.

It has also been used in medicine since the 18th century, because in the right dosage, digitalis is used to treat congestive heart failure and atrial arrhythmia. It can increase blood flow and reduce swelling in hands and ankles.

In England, foxgloves have also been called "fairy thimbles" and some think the name comes from "folks glove," with "folk" meaning the fairy-folk. 

Maybe they were never imagined to be handwear for foxes at all. Makes sense to me. I'd much rather see them as thimbles for fairy seamstresses. 

I used the term when I named "Fairy Thimble Cottage" the fairy-tale English cottage that lures Rosalee Beebee from her home in Buttonwillow CA.

The broad, hairy leaves of the foxglove plant can be confused with comfrey, a common herb which is used by herbalists to treat everything from bronchial problems, broken bones, sprains, arthritis, ulcers, burns, acne and menstrual cramps.

I used this confusion to make things interesting at Fairy Thimble Cottage. 
Comfrey can be confused with Foxglove

People don't usually drop dead immediately from digitalis poisoning. First they have a bunch of symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, hallucinations, and severe headache (hey sound like the side effects of all those drugs they advertise on TV don't they?)

Digitalis poisoning also causes visual impairment and victims tend to see "haloes" around things and the world takes on a yellow tinge. Depending on how much has been ingested, the victim can also have a slow, irregular pulse, tremors, convulsions and heart disturbances (either speeding up or slowing down the heartbeat.)

Death from digitalis poisoning can be confused with a heart attack, which makes it awfully handy for murderers.

Next week I'll talk about another nifty poisonous plant for the use of homicidal characters: Aconinte, aka Monkshood or Wolfsbane.

What about you, readers? Do you find poisonings more interesting than shootings? What poisonous plants do you find the scariest? Can you think of a classic mystery that uses digitalis as a means to murder? 

SHERWOOD, LTD: Camilla Mystery #2

Suddenly-homeless American manners expert Camilla Randall becomes a 21st century Maid Marian—living rough near the real Sherwood Forest with a band of outlaw English erotica publishers—led by a charming, self-styled Robin Hood who unfortunately may intend to kill her. 

When Camilla is invited to publish a book of her columns with UK publisher Peter Sherwood, she lands in a gritty criminal world—far from the Merrie Olde England she envisions. 

The staff are ex-cons and the erotica is kinky. Hungry and penniless, she camps in a Wendy House built from pallets of porn while battling an epic flood, a mendacious American Renfaire wench, and the mysterious killer who may be Peter himself.

Sherwood, Ltd. is only $2.99 in ebook from all the AmazonsiTunesGooglePlay ScribdInkteraKobo, Nook, and Smashwords
And it's  $11.99 in paper from Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Sample Reviews:

"A wily tale of murder, deceit, and intrigue that can stand with the best of them. Her characters are all too real and her dialogue took me from laughter to chills" David Keith on Smashwords

"Smartly written and nearly impossible to put down, I found myself counting the hours until I could leave work and get back to reading! Well done!" T.L. Ingham on Smashwords

"An intriguing and fast paced novel that demands you read on to the next page and beyond. The characters are well constructed and believable and I enjoyed the difference between the USA and UK people. The plight of our heroine is complex and well -managed and in the beginning I was striving for her to find some genuine help and support. The flip over to the UK added more spice! Highly recommended."—David L. Atkinson, author of The 51st State


  1. I so love that Enid Blyton picture!

    As a thriller writer I have to say I've never even considered poisoning as a murder weapon, but now I'm thinking maybe it's time I did!

    1. Mark-I was so pleased when I did a search for "fox wearing gloves" and came up with this picture from the original cover of Enid Blyton's storybook. I think it's adorable.

      Poisonings are much more fun than guns, I think. They're slower than bullets, but so much more sneaky.

  2. I believe that the Greek root for pharmacy means poison. Big pharma wouldn't want to be reminded of that, would they?

    1. Ruth--Haha! I did not know that. But it makes sense. Almost all these traditional poisons also have medicinal uses.

  3. Fascinating. I love the fairy and fox picture :-)

    1. Ronel--Thanks for stopping by. I was so pleased to find that picture. Enid Blyton's books are mostly out of print, but they delighted me when I was a child.

  4. Finally on vacation, and I am starting over on your series, Anne! Definitely bookmarking this. make it sound so easy - grin.

    1. Melodie--Enjoy your vacation! I think I may put these posts together in a little e-book for quick reference. For writers, of course. :-)