There are lots of different methods a mystery author can employ to murder but of all of them I think poisoning offers the most possibility for variation. A poisoning can be violent and instant or subtle and drawn out. Sometimes it may not even seem that a murder has taken place at all!
In today’s post I am offering up five examples of poisonings in Golden Age fiction. Please note that I have stayed away from selecting hidden poisonings for the obvious reason that I don’t want to spoil that reveal for anyone. Yes, that does mean that I am cutting off one of the richest and most interesting ways of using this idea but the good news is that I still had plenty of great stories to choose from.
One more thing: as I always note, this is not meant to be a list of the five greatest poisoning stories. Instead these are five tales that I felt demonstrated different interesting ways to use this method to tell interesting and compelling stories. With that said, let’s begin…
Murder in the Maze by J. J. Connington
One of my favorite murder weapon tropes from the Golden Age is that every country house seemed to have an open jar or two of that rare poison, curare. For the uninitiated, curare is the name given to highly toxic alkaloid poisons used to treat arrowheads by certain indigenous tribes in South America.
There’s a lot that appeals to me with this trope, from the unusual and dramatic method of delivery from a distance to the excitement of figuring out who could have got access to that poison and how.
J. J. Connington’s Murder in the Maze is a great example of this trope as the story involves the murder of two brothers in a hedge maze, both with poison-tipped arrows. While the matter of who did the crime is not particularly well-disguised, the investigation is a lot of fun and the conclusion to the novel is a lot of fun.
Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull
One of the most interesting aspects of a poisoning murder is that it allows for the possibility of a delayed crime or murder at a distance. Excellent Intentions offers an excellent example of this as the victim ends up administering it to themselves when they inhale snuff that has been laced with poison.
An unusual feature of the novel is that the book begins with the killer on trial for the murder but their identity is withheld from the reader. The reader will have to use their observational and deductive skills to work out which of the characters in the story is the one on trial.
It’s a novel approach and it makes for an entertaining read, particularly given there are several colorful characters in the suspect pool.
Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie frequently used poison as the murder method in her novels giving me plenty of options to pick from.
Three Act Tragedy is an interesting example because while it is clear from the start that poison was used to murder the Reverend Babbington, there are no traces of it in either the drinks glasses or in the food served at dinner. In other words, we have a poisoning howdunnit.
Add in the question of why anyone would want to murder the mild-mannered man and you have the ingredients for a fascinating and challenging case for Poirot. Mechanically, the solution is clever (aside from the motive) and I also really enjoy that Poirot is a witness to the first murder.
The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong
I picked The Chocolate Cobweb because I felt it uses the threat of a poisoning to excellent effect. At the start of the novel Amanda, our protagonist, observes an attempt by Ione to poison her stepson’s hot chocolate. Fearing that she will try again she decides to return to their house and get evidence of that crime.
Armstrong was a master of creating suspense and this novel demonstrates that wonderfully. Amanda is perfectly aware of the dangers she will be facing but chooses to do so anyway in the hope that Ione will accidentally expose herself if she moves against her.
The book contains very little padding and builds brilliantly to a thrilling conclusion. This is one of my favorite books released to date in the American Mystery Classics range and I strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys suspense fiction.
Family Matters by Anthony Rolls
Finally, I couldn’t do a post about poisonings in mystery fiction without referencing one of my very favorite Golden Age novels, Anthony Rolls’ Family Matters which I have still not reviewed on this blog.
The premise of the story is that we have two potential killers who each independently come up with the same idea to murder a man, albeit for quite different reasons. Having picked the same target, they each set to work to execute their plan but find themselves getting in each others’ way.
One of the things that delighted me about this book was that, in contrast with its obviously dark subject matter, it is often very funny. A large part of that is that we possess knowledge that the characters don’t and can appreciate their growing frustration and puzzlement about why their plans aren’t working.
The other is that although we know who is trying to kill the victim, we spend the novel wondering which one will ultimately succeed. A very clever inverted novel – Rolls’ The Vicar’s Experiments is also excellent and, once again, involves poison but is much harder to find.
No review here (yet) but I do discuss it with JJ on episode 2 of the In GAD We Trust podcast.
What are some of your favorite mysteries that feature poisonings?