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

The Vicar’s Experiments by Anthony Rolls

Book Details

Originally published in 1932
The American edition was published as Clerical Error that same year

Plot Summary

The Reverend Mr. Pardicott is struck by the idea that he should kill one of his parishioners, Colonel Cargoy. He sets about trying to devise a method by which he can eliminate him and finds his answer in a book of poisons…

The Verdict

Consistently amusing and well observed. Only the final few chapters underwhelm but the journey to that point is witty and entertaining.


My Thoughts

Those of you who listened to my appearance on one of the very early episodes of the In GAD We Trust podcast will be aware that another novel by Anthony Rolls, Family Matters, was largely responsible for my starting this blog. It also was the book that I credit as piquing my interest in inverted crime stories – an interest that you could fairly describe as having transformed into a fully-formed obsession.

Today’s post is not about that book. I will, no doubt, eventually get around to writing about that book in more detail though I feel I ought to save it for one of the big landmark posts. Instead I decided to read and write about Rolls’ first criminous novel which, depending on whether you read the British or American editions is either The Vicar’s Experiments or Clerical Error.

Now, before I go much further I should make it clear that this book is sadly long out of print. As you may expect it is rather expensive to acquire – I found that the American edition is cheaper but even that set me back $50. If this book interests you enough to search it out I strongly suggest looking for both titles and keep an eye on it appearing in some listings as by C. E. Vulliamy (Rolls’ actual name).

Okay, so that is more than enough introduction – what is the book about?

The Vicar’s Experiments introduces us to the Reverend Mr. Pardicott who presides over a small rural parish. He is in the middle of a meeting with Colonel Cargoy, a busybody who makes it his business to object to every proposal on the parish council. Pardicott is enduring the conversation when he is struck by the idea that he should kill the old soldier:

Up to a quarter past three, Mr. Pardicott might have been described as the gentlest of rural clergymen; at twenty minutes past three he was a criminal of the most dangerous kind. In a dizzy moment of revelation he saw that he had been chosen by the Inscrutable Purpose to be the destroyer of Colonel Cargoy.

The Vicar’s Experiments, Chapter One

Those seeking a detailed psychological portrait of the murderer will likely be disappointed with the treatment Rolls gives to motive. In the short passage quoted above we see Pardicott snapping as an idea occurs to him he simply cannot or will not shake. He appears to view himself as an instrument acting under some sort of divine instruction and much of what follows seems to only confirm that idea to him.

We do soon see though that Pardicott does have at least one other motivation. Although he himself is married, he has a growing attachment to Cargoy’s much younger wife. Pardicott does not focus on this and indeed, his interest in the experiments he will start to conduct seems to outgrow these beginnings, but they are at least there and I think it is a more satisfying explanation than his simply being mad.

Once Pardicott gets the idea of murder in his head he then sets out to figure out how he will accomplish his deed. Though Pardicott’s motivations for murder are not particularly complex, I found it interesting to follow him as he devised and brought about his plan. The method he decides on is quite novel and while scientifically complex, explained well. Before long the parish has one fewer resident and the question becomes what will happen next. If you are in any doubt, I would invite you to consider the original British title for a clue…

Published just a year after Iles’ enormously influential Malice Aforethought, there do seem to be some similarities between the two works. Both are set in the countryside and strike broadly humorous tones, making light of some pretty dark ideas. Each features someone in a profession traditionally held in esteem behaving badly, involve obscure poisons and in both cases sexual desire is at least a partial motivation for murder.

In spite of those similarities I think it would be a mistake to think The Vicar’s Experiments a derivative work. While psychology is a factor in both books, Rolls emphasizes his own belief that murder is almost always committed by the insane. Iles’ Dr. Bickleigh was clearly a man in control of his faculties, choosing to apply them to a dark purpose. Pardicott has become seduced by an idea that compels him to act and everything he sees appears to reinforce that he is acting in accordance with Providence.

Where much of Malice Aforethought is spent getting to a point where Bickleigh is able to commit the crime, Rolls dispenses of Cargoy early in the narrative. As a consequence of this, much more time is spent exploring what happens after the murder and how the local community responds.

Rolls also places far more importance on the detection of the crime, albeit while employing a rather ineffective sleuth. This investigation is not particularly rigorous, in large part because the person carrying it out is a man of pretty limited imagination and ability. The reader will likely identify multiple loose ends and clues that might point the sleuth in Pardicott’s direction – the question is whether they will notice them and, if so, what they will do.

Rolls is able to sustain much of the lively pacing and work in some humorous moments in the early part of the investigation. One of my favorites is a sequence involving discussion of church architecture which is done very well, featuring some amusing turns of phrase.

There is a definite shift of pace and tone however in the final few chapters of the book. These feel quite noticeably slower than what has gone before and the comedic elements largely disappear. This is understandable given the turn of events in those chapters of the novel and yet it does seem quite sudden and, in my opinion, it is not wholly successful.

I think that endings are often a problem with the more comedic inverted stories. If they were successful there needs to be some form of justice and yet it is hard to provide that while keeping the laughs coming. Those who are able to do it usually manage this by making that moment come quickly with an explosive, ironical reveal. This is part of what makes Malice Aforethought such a memorable read.

The Vicar’s Experiments sustains its comedic tone much longer and more successfully than most. It captures a rural community quite well and there are some very amusing observations and commentaries in the narration. One of my favorites isn’t really a gag at all in the usual sense but rather a sort of in-joke with complaints about the dreary church architecture of Lewis Vulliamy (the author’s grandfather – a fact hidden by the use of the Rolls pseudonym).

I appreciated that the characters are all pretty colorful and distinctive. There are some amusing observations about several of those in professional roles (some of the sharpest relates to the country doctor). On the other hand, the women suffer from not being given much to do and Pardicott’s wife feels largely peripheral to much of the story.

In spite of these flaws, I felt that The Vicar’s Experiments was a really entertaining read. If, like me, you are a fan of Rolls’ Family Matters I think you will find this enjoyable and worth your time. I found it consistently amusing and was impressed by how that tone was sustained for most of the book. The murder plot uses some clever ideas, some of which seem quite inventive, and while the investigation feels quite bumbling in comparison the book remains readable right until the end.