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

Murder in the Maze by J. J. Connington

Murder in the Maze
J. J. Connington
Originally Published 1927
Clinton Driffield #1
Followed by Tragedy at Ravensthorpe

While I like to think that I was a pretty smart kid growing up, when I first went to school I was quite prone to taking my classmates’ wild stories and claims as being gospel. For instance, I was sure that my friend Konrad really had fallen off the top of the Empire State Building and been bit by a rattlesnake while on what I imagined must have been the worst holiday in America that has ever taken place.

Another friend, James, had his own wild claim that really stuck with me. He had told everyone that on a trip to Hampton Court that he and his parents had got so lost in the maze there that they got stuck there overnight and were only rescued the next morning. After hearing that story I couldn’t help but think of hedge mazes as being the perfect test of a puzzler’s true abilities.

That is a rather long-winded explanation why I selected this title out of the various ones available to be my first taste of J. J. Connington’s work. The idea of a murder mystery set within a hedge maze seemed too good to be true and certainly appealed to my imagination. As a bonus, I’d be experiencing the first of Connington’s novels to feature his series detective Sir Clinton Driffield.

Neville and Roger Shandon are twin brothers who live, along with a few other family members, at a country estate. While they look alike, they have quite different backgrounds as Neville is a highly successful lawyer while Roger seems to have been some sort of adventurer or explorer in South America.

Feeling frustrated with their noisy family members, the brothers decide they have need of some peace and quiet and that they will each visit the large hedge maze on their property which has two separate, secluded centers where they hope they can sit undisturbed. As it happens though two house guests decide that they will also have some fun in the maze, setting out to try to race each other to the center. To make things interesting they even wager half a tin of cocoa on the outcome! When they reach the centers however they discover that the two brothers have both been murdered.

Sir Clinton is the local chief constable who investigates the crime with the help of Squire Wendover and they quickly establish that they were each shot by a poisoned dart laced with curare – a poison used on arrows in South America. It turns out that there had been a jar of the stuff left unsecured on the grounds of the house so, as Sir Clinton notes, everyone had access to the murder weapon and because the weapon does not require any great strength, even a woman might have done the crime!

I found the initial phase of the investigation to be the most intriguing as the crime scene presents several contradictions for our sleuths to resolve. The first relates to the choice of victims as though the brothers look similar, those who knew they ought to have been able to tell them apart. That might suggest an external, possibly hired killer yet the maze is complex and the killings happen in quite quick succession, meaning that anyone who did not already know the layout of the maze would struggle both to find the center quickly, execute two killings and then flee without detection. That would seem to suggest someone closer to home.

Connington presents us with a field of possible suspects that would fit either explanation but unfortunately I felt it was pretty clear who was likely to be responsible. Proving it is, of course, a different matter but those seeking a nice twist or shock revelation will likely be disappointed. My first instinct was right and both TomCat and Puzzle Doctor had similar experiences so I don’t think this is a case of a lucky first guess on my part.

Fortunately the process of working to that solution is a lot of fun in its own right, principally because I really like the way Sir Clinton and the Squire interact with each other. Be prepared for Sir Clinton to keep his cards close to his chest – he has theories and reasons behind some of his actions that he will not share with his friend, although I think most of the time it is fairly clear what those are likely to be. Instead he likes to encourage the Squire to venture his own theories which he quite smugly will dismiss or point out flaws in.

While you may expect this to be a typical case of the great detective with his bumbling, hapless sidekick, the Squire actually makes some very important and well-reasoned contributions at points that move us much closer to the solution. I found both characters to be quite likeable and found their interactions to be very enjoyable.

Though I found the solution to the mystery to be a little underwhelming, I did enjoy the way that the case is finally resolved. The author has our sleuth spring a trap for the killer rather than simply present a well-reasoned case against them and delays naming the person that has been caught for a few pages, effectively presenting a challenge to the reader.

This makes for a nice compromise between the thriller and puzzler styles of ending because the action is not used as a substitute for deductive reasoning. At this point in the story our sleuth already knows the solution and can prove most of it. Instead the shot of action invigorates things at the close, adding some welcome tension and uncertainty about how things will end, even if the reader identified the killer long before.

Though the question of the killer’s identity never quite mystifies the way I think it is intended to, there is a lot to like here. Connington has an easy, quick writing style and has created not only a memorable scenario but also a likeable pair of sleuths to investigate it. In the end, the relationship between those two characters is the aspect of the novel that I appreciated most about it. I enjoyed the company of those two characters enough that I am sure I will seek out more of their adventures.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Title contains two words beginning with same letter (What)