February 27, 2015 at 12:35 AM

Dr. Clark,
What do I have to know to keep it real when writing about using poisons in mystery fiction? I’m not a medical person and I find the subject quite confusing. Also, I just finished your new medical thriller IMMORTAL FEAR and loved it. I’m going to be at the Left Coast Crime Conference in Portland, I’ll be at your panel, and I’m hoping to chat with you there.

Jean S.
Mystery Writer
Escondido, California



February 27, 2015 at 12:56 AM
Dear Jean,
I’m glad you enjoyed my new medical thriller IMMORTAL FEAR. I’ll be signing at the meeting and I’ll have plenty of time for a chat. You can text/call my conference number 206-673-3251 anytime during the meeting to find me.

Poisons are a traditional murder method in mystery fiction. The history of poisons in fiction reads like a who’s who of great writers. You have to consider many questions: how to get it, how to safely handle it, how to hide it, how to transport it to the victim, by what route is it administered, how fast it works, is there an antidote, how easy is it detected after the fact by forensics, how to dispose of any extra, and can it be traced to the original source? Lets look at ten of the most historically significant poisons that have also often been used in fiction:
1. Arsenic: Easy to obtain, administered orally, discrete, high potency. Basically, it causes cellular metabolic failure and cell death. Historically, it’s been hard to detect, but modern forensics (the Marsh test) can now detect microscopic amounts. It absorbs into and contaminates everything, and it’s hard wash off. So it leaves a trail right back to the murderer.
2. Botulinum Toxin (Botox): The now popular cosmetic drug is made from deadly bacteria. It can be administered orally or by injection. Basically, this poison inactivates the contraction mechanism of muscles, causing paralysis, and death from inability to breathe. Used to be hard to get, but now it’s everywhere. It’s a prescription drug, and should be traceable back to the source. Yeah, right, like all those wayward narcotics floating around!
3. Cyanide: Easy to get, but easy to back trace, a small dose kills quickly, easy to conceal, given orally or can be inhaled (poison gas). It kills by preventing the body from using oxygen, causing internal, cellular suffocation. I used Cyanide as a poison in my medical thriller SECRET THOUGHTS. Cyanide is found in many common consumer and industrial products, so your death could be an “accident.” Forensically, it’s easy to find if you are looking for it. There’s an antidote, but it’s not readily available and has to be injected immediately in order to work. Cyanide is good when you need your poison tiny, fast, and deadly, or when the death needs to be an option, or a suicide, like the so overdone spy poison-in-a-tooth.
4. Mercury: Easy to get, takes repeated doses over a long time to kill, easy to detect, but only if you are looking for it. Mercury causes progressive brain and nerve damage. The nerve damage is irreversible, but treatment can stop progression. Mercury is a nice poison when you’re after the inheritance, and need to get rid of your spouse or boss, or just make them demented and legally incompetent.
5. Polonium: This is a radioactive isotope, and a tiny amount ingested or inhaled causes death in weeks to months from internal radiation exposure. It’s easy to trace back to the source, but impossible to cure. Polonium is a favorite spy poison, because you usually need to be a government to get it. This poison is classically used in D.O.A. type stories, where the walking dead murder victim helps find his own killer. Check out the classic noir film D.O.A in 1950 and the remake in 1988.
6. Tetrodotoxin: It’s a deadly nerve poison found in puffer fish, and the blue-ringed octopus, which has a painless, deadly bite. Puffer fish with toxin removed are a culinary delicacy. So the toxin is easy to come by, and hard to trace back. A small amount injected or inhaled causes death in minutes by muscle paralysis that stops your breathing. Put all chefs on your suspect list.
7. Dimethylmercury: It’s a man-made form of mercury that kills slowly over months, but only takes a single exposure of as little as one-tenth of a milliliter, just a drop. It’s highly absorbent, and will easily penetrate skin, and most protective gloves and clothing. This poison is hard to get, but you don’t need much, and by the time death occurs, you’re dealing with a cold case.
8. Belladonna or “Deadly Nightshade”: This is a plant used now to make Atropine, a common, life-saving drug in the right situation. But eating one Belladonna leaf or a dozen berries can cause a rapid overdose, leading to rapid heartbeat, seizures, loss of coordination, extreme anxiety, confusion, delirium, hallucinations, irregular breathing, and death. This is not an easy plant to find or grow.
9. Aconite (Monkshood or Wolfbane): Aconite kills by causing an irregular heart beat in which blood does not effectively circulate. Death is in a few minutes or a few hours, depending on the dose. It’s absorbed rapidly by mouth or via the skin, so touching it can kill. Magnesium can sometimes correct the deadly heart rhythm. It’s hard to detect, and hard to trace back to the source. It’s found in mountain meadows in Northern climates, and is not too difficult to grow from seeds. Historically, this was a favorite for poison tipped arrows, so it’s good if you need to dart your victim.
10. Hemlock: This plant is easy to find and highly deadly to humans and animals. It can be brewed into and masked by a flavorful drink, and given orally without being detected. It kills by muscle paralysis over minutes to hours. Onset is often slow, with a long period of immobility before unconsciousness, perfect for putting the horror in your murder.
I hope this overview helps you to plan the perfect crime!

H.S. Clark, MD
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