There’s an entry in 642 Things to Write About that’s simply the word “arsenic” and nothing else. No prompts, no comments, just “arsenic.”
Mystery writing has its fads, just like anything else. I forget who said it, but somewhere I ran across an author talking about writing mysteries who said, “It must be murder. Theft is fine, kidnapping always makes the pulse race, but when it comes to what people want to read, really want to read, is a good, bloody, horrifying murder.” I’m paraphrasing a lot, but that was the general gist of the comment. What people want is murder. That doesn’t change if your detective is Sam Spade, Miss Marple, or Sherlock Holmes. The favorites are always murder mysteries. But “bloody, horrifying murder?” Now, that’s a fad.
That being said, poison, as a murder-mystery’s killer’s weapon of choice, has fallen out of fashion. Part of this is because a) it’s slow, b) advances in medical science have made it more trouble than its worth, c) overdoses are easier to cover up – poisons almost always turn up in post-mortem bloodwork, and d) it’s inconvenient to write. You have to do your homework. You have to know the dosage the victim is getting, how they’re getting it, where the murder is getting the poison, and how they’re planning on hiding it.
All of which explains why arsenic used to be so popular. It’s technically a heavy metal, so there is no antidote. It was readily available as a rat poison until the middle-ish of the last century. It has a slight almond scent and flavor, so it’s easy to hide. It can be absorbed through the skin. Its symptoms mimic some sort of stomach bug – sweating, cramps, weakness, vomiting. The only trouble is speed. Arsenic is a slow way to kill someone and the longer you take, the more likely you are to get caught.
But there’s still that factor of romance. “Arsenic,” someone whispers and someone else gasps. What a twisted, classic way to kill someone. It speaks of hidden assignations and old, burning hatreds. It implies intimacy and refinement. The idea has elegance and elan. In reality, since poison makes the organs fail, its a messy way to kill someone. But the spirit is there.
Unfortunately, there are problems with arsenic. Though I’ve seen it a couple stories burned in candlewicks and put into the air, I doubt this. It’s possible to inhale the stuff, but mostly that happens from smelting pollutants. That leaves ingestion and absorption, both of which are, while convenient, rather predictable and not very interesting. The speed issue I’ve mentioned already. Oh, and everyone knows about arsenic. It’s cliche and obvious now. In this day and age, there are simply better things available – faster working, harder to spot, and easier to get a hold of.
But, to quote Terry Pratchett in Feet of Clay:
“Arsenic is a very popular poison,” said the Patrician. “Hundreds of uses around the home. Crushed diamonds used to be in vogue for a while, despite the fact they never worked. Giant spiders, too, for some reason. Mercury is for those with patience, aquafortis for those without. Cantharides has its followers. Much can be done with the secretions of various animals. The bodily fluids of the caterpillar of the Quantum Weather Butterfly will render a man quite, quite helpless.
But we return to arsenic like an old, old friend.”