Book review: Author offers macabre but entertaining look at poisons and those who used them | Entertainment


“A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” Julie Andrews sings in “Mary Poppins.”

But those with murder on their minds might select a pinch of poison to ensure that their slayings succeed.

Scientist Neil Bradbury explores the concept with a wealth of detail in “A Taste for Poison.” He examines 11 substances: biomolecules of death (insulin, atropine, strychnine, aconite, ricin, digoxin and cyanide) and molecules of death from the Earth (potassium, polonium, arsenic and chlorine).

Mesmerizing? Exceptionally.

Bradbury stresses that each poison “is not intrinsically good or bad, it’s just a chemical. What differs is the intent with which the chemical is used: either to preserve life—or to take it.”

Of the killers he discusses, a disturbing number are connected to medicine or other forms of science, including two physicians, three nurses and a professor of neurological surgery.

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Of the victims, many fall into expected categories such as spouses. But they also include two men who abandoned communism: Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov and former KGB agent turned MI6 operative Alexander Litvinenko.

Of his descriptions of how the poisons kill, readers faint of heart and/or weak of stomach should be prepared for graphic and terrifying details.

Bradbury works as a professor of physiology and biophysics at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, a private graduate school in North Chicago, Ill., where he teaches and conducts research on genetic diseases.

He writes in terms laypeople will grasp with ease. And while never minimizing the gravity of murder, he also forges a welcome blend of sober and breezy prose.

And he offers engaging anecdotes that touch on his subjects. He speculates, for instance, that Vincent van Gogh’s fondness for yellow might have resulted from digitalis toxicity: “Although there is no written evidence that digitalis was ever prescribed for van Gogh, two portraits of his personal physician, including ‘Portrait of Doctor Gachet, ‘show the good doctor holding a foxglove plant.”

True-crime enthusiasts—the proliferation of TV shows devoted to the subject indicates that their numbers are legion—will enjoy this erudite and entertaining book, as will anyone attracted by science and medicine.

Jay Strafford, a retired Virginia journalist, now lives in Florida.

Jay Strafford, a retired Virginia journalist, now lives in Florida.


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