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

Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull

Originally Published 1938

Great Barwick’s least popular man is murdered on a train. Twelve jurors sit in court. Four suspects are identified—but which of them is on trial? This novel has all the makings of a classic murder mystery, but with a twist: as Attorney-General Anstruther Blayton leads the court through prosecution and defence, Inspector Fenby carries out his investigation. All this occurs while the identity of the figure in the dock is kept tantalisingly out of reach.

Excellent Intentions is a Golden Age crime novel that tells the story of the trial of a person accused of killing Launcelot Henry Cuthbert Cargate, a highly disagreeable landowner. This is not a legal thriller but rather a fairly conventional mystery as the accused’s identity is held back from the reader and they will have to deduce it from the court proceedings.

On the day of his murder, Cargate was set to make a journey by train. After complaining to the station master about a small delay and the conduct of his staff, Cargate enters the compartment and is observed appearing to take snuff from his pocket and putting it to his nostril before violently collapsing. Upon examination of the snuff case the police discover that the contents had been laced with poison.

The bulk of Hull’s story establishes the case for the prosecution, building up a timetable and establishing the personalities of the suspects and their possible reasons for wanting Cargate dead. Once this information is provided a handful of chapters at the end detail the remainder of the trial, the jury discussions and final outcome.

I have to say that I am undecided about whether I feel this structure worked. On the one hand, I think Hull does manage to hide the accused’s identity well while still providing enough clues that it can be fairly worked out. I also think that there is something inherently interesting in exploring the power of the jury and the personalities that make one up although I think it misses the opportunity to consider that in even greater detail. On the other hand, I was a little disappointed by how little we hear from the defence although, like Kate, I understand its necessity to preserve the surprise of the suspect’s identity.

The other issue I had was with the character of the victim, Cargate, who seems cartoonishly horrible from the start of the novel. While I do not require a rigidly realistic approach in my crime reading, this presentation of the character verges on being inadvertently comical and comes close to rendering the opening of the novel ridiculous.

Cargate is presented as being underhand in his dealings with his staff and others while also possessing an argumentative and vindictive streak. Moments before his death he is threatening to report staff at the train station for accidentally bumping into him and for the train being a couple of minutes late. Couple that with his refusal to consider employing anyone local, preferring to acquire much more expensive servants in London.

Inspector Fenby is tasked with investigating the death and starts interviewing suspects, compiling a short list of three or four credible killers. This section of the novel is, as a consequence, quite slow and I would not disagree with PuzzleDoctor’s description of it as being a ‘bit time-tabley’. Be prepared to spend a lot of time trying to work out who was where and when!

Fenby does not have an awful lot of personality and there are no attempts to build him up as a character. He largely exists to fulfil a role that drives the story forward while being credible as a witness and investigating officer. I think he does that reasonably well but it does make the middle of the novel seem a little dry.

The suspect pool is thankfully a little more entertaining and imaginative than the sleuth and it contains several colorful characters. I was entertained by the stories told of meetings held on the day of Cargate’s murder and think that the puzzle of who was responsible was interesting, if not enthralling.

Though not a perfect read, I do think that this is a solid and intriguing one. For those keen to try Hull’s work, I would certainly suggest looking at The Murder of My Aunt first.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Changes to the final two paragraphs of this review were made within moments of publication – I had accidentally tapped post while writing. Whoops!

The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull

MurderofMyAunt
The Murder of My Aunt
Richard Hull
Originally Published 1934

The Murder of My Aunt is a story in the inverted style, told from the perspective of a young man who is plotting to kill the aunt whom he lives with order to receive an allowance that he regards as pitifully small. It is an overtly comedic tale and, in talking about it with friends, I have likened it to imagining a less imaginative, more feckless Bertie Wooster trying to off his Aunt Agatha without any assistance from Jeeves.

It should be said that not only is this not a conventional mystery novel, it isn’t even really a conventional inverted story either as almost all of the action takes place prior to the murder taking place. There is no period of reflection, no telltale conscience or worrying about clues left at the scene. Instead this is a journal-style report of the development of the protagonist’s plans as they try to find a scheme that will work.

The first few chapters are the best in the whole book as we get to know that protagonist and see how his resentment towards his aunt has built and the manner of their interactions with each other. The incident that sparks it all is his Aunt insisting that Edward take a stroll into the village to pick up a parcel of the French novels he orders that she thoroughly disapproves of. He wishes to avoid the exercise but everything he thinks to try she has already prepared for. It is tremendously enjoyable opening to the novel and features some of the best comical writing I have ever encountered.

It is in the aftermath of that event that we see Edward come to the decision that his aunt must die and he begins to scheme ways to make that happen. There are still a number of very funny moments and sequences in these sections of the book as the battle of wits continues and the reader might be forgiven for wondering if the titular murder will ever take place. Don’t worry, it will and when we finally get to that moment the reader ought to be prepared to work out precisely how it will be managed based on the hints dropped throughout the rest of the novel.

Both Edward and his Aunt Mildred are glorious creations and come to vivid life on the page. Certainly their antagonistic relationship feels believable and like one that may have developed over a lifetime of growing up in close proximity to someone you don’t particularly like or respect.

Edward is idle, insolent and believes that he is entitled to live a life of leisure and comfort at his aunt’s expense. He begrudges having to live in the country where he lacks diversions, and lavishes what little attention he possesses upon his French novels, his Pekinese dog So-So and his fashionable roadster La Joyeuse. He is not unintelligent but does not apply himself to anything which will be one of the challenges he will struggle to overcome in organizing an effective murder plot.

Meanwhile his Aunt Mildred is domineering and wishes to mold her nephew into her image of a fit young man to be the future of their old family name. Even keeping in mind that this narrative is told from the perspective of a man who feels vindictively toward her, she is someone it would be hard to like and the reader may well question whether there might have been a better approach she might have taken in managing her wayward charge.

The secondary characters are much less vividly drawn and occupy only very limited roles in Edward’s narrative, reflecting his narrow view of events, though they do play significant roles in parts of the plot. Hull’s writing style is engaging and even though it becomes clear where things will be headed by the midpoint of the novel, I felt the novel lost little of its interest.

Unfortunately I think there is little more I can say about this novel without running the risk of spoiling the experience. I am extremely glad I read it and have already sought out some other books by Hull that I plan on reading over the next few months. What I can say is that this is an excellent, if unconventional entry in the British Library Crime Classics collection and well worth checking out if you like darkly humorous stories or the inverted mystery form. Highly recommended.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Crime involved fire/arson (How) – A bit of a cheat here but there is an incident of arson within the narrative.

Review copy provided by the publisher.