Five to Try: Poisoning Mysteries

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?

Previous Five to Try lists: Inverted Mysteries, Railway Mysteries, Memory Mysteries, Theatrical Mysteries, Hotel Mysteries


25 thoughts on “Five to Try: Poisoning Mysteries

  1. Your review of The Chocolate Cobweb encouraged me to buy it, since I had dismissed at as “not my kind of thing” but you made it sound like a grand old time. One f these days I might even get round to reading it…

    As to favourites of my own, well…

    The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley (obvious, perhaps, but an all-time classic)
    The Problem of the Green Capsule by John Dickson Carr (obvious, perhaps, but an all-time classic)
    As a Thief in the Night by R. Austin Freeman
    Sudden Death by Freeman Wills Crofts (a gassing, but that’s pretty poisonous…)

    Actually, the more I think about it, these are going to be pretty darn obvious choices. Man, I need to read some cool obscure titles soon if I want to keep any sense of esteem in this community 😄

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    1. Some interesting choices there. Green Capsule is a favorite and, were it in print, it would almost certainly have appeared on this list. The idea is really clever. I own several of the others here so I will have to push them up the pile (and yes, gassing definitely counts!).
      As a Thief in the Night sounds like it might be my next Freeman based on your recommendation.
      I hope that you like Chocolate Cobweb. I was gripped by it and really enjoyed that tension it creates. I also appreciated that the heroine throws herself quite knowingly into danger which is a little different than how domestic suspense usually plays out.

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      1. Given how infrequently our tastes align, I’m thinking that I shouldn’t even start The Chocolate Cobweb and should just put it on eBay right away 😄

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  2. “What are some of your favorite mysteries that feature poisonings?”

    That’s a deep pool to draw from! But if I had to pick one, it would be (ROT13) The Alchemist’s Bottle-trick from John Dickson Carr’s The Four False Weapons. Why that trick never became a well-worn trope like Poe’s Purloined Letter, Doyle’s Birlstone Gambit or Chesterton’s Invisible Man is a complete mystery. Arthur Porges is (to my knowledge) the only who did something (differently) with that idea in “Dead Drunk.”

    Since you’re working through the Case Closed series, the story with the loan shark from volume 15 has one of my favorite methods to deliver poison to the victim. So you have that to look forward to. 🙂

    Interesting list! I was not too impressed with Family Matters, but agree with you on Murder in the Maze and Sad Cypress would have been a better Christie title to pick. It’s her take on Sayers’ Strong Poison and she even named one of the characters Peter Lord. Your recommendation for Armstrong’s The Chocolate Web has been jotted down!

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    1. I look forward to getting to TFFW then. It sounds intriguing and I look forward to discovering the trick for myself.
      I will look forward to reaching Volume 15 of Case Closed. I am certainly now really curious what that method will be!
      Fair point on Sad Cypress. It’s been a while since I read that one so it didn’t leap to mind but yes, the poisoning there is clever.
      Hope you enjoy The Chocolate Cobweb!

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  3. As mentioned to you before, I really enjoy your five to try posts as they get me thinking.

    I agree with Jim on Poisoned Chocolates, Green Capsule and Sudden Death. They are only “obvious” because their excellence means many will read these classics.

    Christie was a master at poisonings including but not limited to Mysterious Affair at Styles, A Pocket Full of Rye, Murder is Easy (hat paint of all things!), Sparkling Cyanide, 4.50 from Paddington, Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, Nemesis, The Pale Horse, Crooked House, The Moving Finger, etc. My favourite of course is the brilliant, Five Little Pigs.

    Others that immediately come to mind: Crofts’ Antidote to Venom, Joanna Cannan’s Murder Included, Brand’s Green for Danger and Hare’s An English Murder.

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    1. Thanks Scott. I enjoy doing them and hearing all the great recommendations that others share!

      Christie certainly gives us a good selection of stories to pick from. There are several stories you mention that I wish I had thought of – Antidote to Venom uses a really unusual poison while Green for Danger is just superb. I wish I had remembered to include that one! I have yet to read either the Cannan or Hare and will have to make a point to investigate each. Thank you!

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  4. Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case – an obvious choice because of its quality.
    John Dickson Carr’s The Problem of the Green Capsule – features a poison lecture, plus the puzzle of how a poisoning could be carried out right in front of four captive witnesses without them being able to agree on the details.
    Q Patrick’s Cottage Sinister – a very clever technique and motive. Feels very Christie.
    Agatha Christie – I’m torn between Three Act Tragedy and Sad Cyprus.
    Christiana Brand’s Cyanide in the Sun – this is a short story, not a novel, but it features such a clever trick and captures the horror of a death by cyanide.

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    1. Some excellent choices there and more than a couple I have yet to read (including The Poisoned Chocolates Case – I had been planning to get to it soon but then I had the misfortune of reading The Wychford Poisoning Case and it is going to be tough to motivate myself to return to Berkeley anytime soon!).)

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      1. I love Berkeley’s writing in The Poisoned Chocolates Case, Trial and Error, and Malice Aforethought (just finished). At his best he’s incredibly clever and there’s this great smugness to his characters. But yeah, Dead Mrs Straton (Jumping Jenny) somehow didn’t hit for me (although it had some good passages).

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  5. The problem with being a blogger is that one likes to show off! As soon as I read this, I dashed here to give you my answers and – lo and behold! – some of my own choices, like Five Little Pigs, The Poisoned Chocolates Case and Green for Danger had been named. You snooze, you lose!

    So now I have to come up with . . . . something else!!! Let’s see:

    1. Agatha Christie’s Murder Is Easy contains my single favorite poisoning method in the world. Whenever anyone posts the question, “Favorite murder methods?” I always say the one that killed Dr. Humbleby (not the hat paint, which is also used here). If you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about. If not, I’m not spoiling it because it’s hilarious.

    2. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is my favorite Shirley Jackson novel and an absolutely brilliant tale of a mass poisoning that kills off nearly an entire family. I’m not saying another word. In terms of twists, it’s great, and in terms of mob violence, Jackson does “The Lottery” one better.

    3. Carr’s The Burning Court! Twist upon twist upon twist!! Fuggedaboudit!!!!!!

    4. “Accident,” one of Christie’s best stand-alone short stories. A nice little cat and mouse tale. But who’s the mouse, and who’s the cat?

    5. The Tragedy of Y by Ellery Queen/Barnaby Ross. I think even JJ liked some aspects of this one! The scene where the little boy is poisoned is creepy as hell – almost as creepy as who turned out to poison him.

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    1. So I am glad that you had to go back to the drawing board because these are some great suggestions and most are completely new to me which is exactly what I was hoping for! Murder is Easy is a great pick but I haven’t read any of the others. Consider them all added to my TBR pile.

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    2. It wasn’t JJ who enjoyed The Tragedy of Y, it was me. I’m still trying to get him to read The Tragedy of X (which is a bit cruel, I admit, but it’s an astoundingly painful read that should be experienced by all). The Tragedy of Y was extremely good, even though I knew the core twist, and it still blows my mind that the Queen authors wrote it at the time of all of those other books.

      The Burning Court! How did I not think of that! The Four False Weapons has an especially clever touch too. I forget – have either of you (Aidan or Brad) read it?

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  6. Oh, I’d like to add one-and-a-half more:

    The half is After the Funeral because the poisoning is secondary to the plot, but the plot is one of my favorite in all of Christie.

    The other one is my favorite episode of Perry Mason called “The Case of the Candy Queen,” a late entry which is itself a remake of the very early “The Case of the Silent Partner.” It deals with poisoned chocolates in a clever way. I wrote about it here (and gave away the ending, so beware):

    MY FIRST DETECTIVE

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    1. I do agree with your characterization of After the Funeral. It’s a great story but yes, the poisoning isn’t what I remember most from that one.
      That Perry Mason story isn’t one I have got to yet but it sounds fun. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  7. I have read four of the five in your list, which is a good start!
    Picking 5 is tricky but here are some I enjoyed a lot: Malice Aforethought by Iles, A Dram of Poison by Charlotte Armstrong, Who Killed the Curate? by Joan Coggins, Documents in the Case by Sayers, Crooked House by Christie (prefer this to Three Act Tragedy), A Puzzle in Poison by Berkeley (though not as good as the chocolates case), A Hive of Suspects by Shelia Pim and The Vet it was that Died by Marguerite Silverman. Oh and The Wychford Poisoning – only joking! Probably loads of others I have forgotten.

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    1. I will say that my picks are less obscure than they were for Hotel Mysteries!
      Dram will have to go on the list to read pronto – I have enjoyed all the Armstrong I have read to date. The other suggestions sound interesting. Time to go shopping!
      And let us never speak of Wychford again… 😉

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  8. Thank you for reminding me about Family Matters which I read and loved a few years ago and have just rushed to re-read and found as good as ever.

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