Ten of the best poisonings in literature

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

Christie (who had worked as a pharmacy dispenser) used poison to do away with more than 30 victims in the course of her 66 novels. In Cards on the Table Poirot uncovers the perfidy of Dr Roberts, who kills one man with an injection of anaesthetic and another by applying Bacillus anthracis to the victim’s shaving brush. All it takes is one little nick from his razor.

A Shroud for a Nightingale by PD James

This whodunit is set in a nursing home, where trainee nurse Jo Fallon dies from a dose of insecticide added to her whisky. To find the culprit Inspector Dalgleish will uncover lesbian passions and a matron with a Nazi past.

The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

Doyle was a doctor and made his sleuth an expert toxicologist. When he has to crack the “locked room” murder of Bartholomew Sholto, he soon spots what appears to be a poisoned thorn lodged in the victim’s skin. His anthropological knowledge allows him to surmise that the killer was an Andaman Islander, using a poisoned dart. He is not wrong.

“The Laboratory” by Robert Browning

This dramatic monologue is spoken by a spurned and resentful lover, looking to revenge himself. He naturally visits his local concocter of poisons, ambitious “To carry pure death in an earring, a casket, / A signet, a fan-mount, a filigree basket!” He leaves the lab with a phial and goes to meet her at a dance.

A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

In The Reptile Room (the second volume of this thoroughly Gothic children’s roman fleuve) Uncle Monty, a keen herpetologist, appears to have been killed by a bite from one of his own snakes. In fact the benevolent guardian of the Baudelaire orphans has been poisoned by the fiendish Count Olaf, who is after the Baudelaire inheritance.

Metamorphoses by Ovid

In book nine, Hercules finds Nessus the centaur trying to rape his wife, Deianira, and shoots him with an arrow dipped in the poisonous blood of the Hydra. The dying Nessus tells Deianira that his blood can be used as a love potion. In fact it is poisonous, and the robe with which she soaks it causes her husband such agonies that he begs for death.

The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe

The brilliantly malign Barabas’s victims include his own daughter Abigail, whom he poisons because she becomes a Christian and joins a nunnery. In order to get her, he has to kill all the other nuns as well with “poisoned broth”.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

“Then, venom, to thy work!” Poison accounts for four of the play’s leading characters. In a fencing match, Hamlet and Laertes are both poisoned by the same rapier, “unbated and envenom’d”. Gertrude quaffs the poisoned drink intended by Claudius for her son. Claudius then gets a poisoned stab from Hamlet, who also makes him drink the potion. Even Horatio tries to join in, offering to drink the remaining “liquor”.

The Revenger’s Tragedy by Christopher Middleton

This Jacobean tragedy features one of the most ingenious examples of poisoning in literature. Vindice revenges the poisoning of his beloved Gloriana when she rejected the advances of the lustful Duke: the lecherous ruler is conned into kissing Gloriana’s skull, to which he has applied poison.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Top poisoner among many in this fictional memoir of the Roman emperor is Livia, the narrator’s grandmother and wife of the emperor Augustus. Augustus will eat only figs he has himself picked from the tree, but he dies mysteriously anyway – the poison probably having been administered while the fruit were on the branch.


Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jan/16/ten-best-poisonings-john-mullan