An entertaining potpourri about poison: anecdotes, history, lore, science and trivia.
MacInnes (Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar, 2003), an Australian science writer, has fun with his deadly subject, giving the reader a glimpse of famous poisoners and their victims, a bit of the science of poisons and their detection, and a brief survey of the uses and abuses, intentional and accidental, of poisons. Opening with a dramatis personae that includes an assorted cast of characters from Cleopatra to Clare Booth Luce and a glossary of poisons that goes way beyond arsenic and strychnine, he wanders widely over the landscape of poison and poisoners. Studding his text is a plethora of paragraphs set off by shaded backgrounds that contain nonessential but intriguing sidelights, rather like overgrown footnotes that have moved up into the main body of the work. They can be skipped by the impatient reader, but shouldn’t be. MacInnes considers poisons in various guises and locations: in food and drink, in the medicine chest, in cosmetics, in household items, in the workplace and in the environment. Further, he looks at their place in politics, recounting victims from Socrates to Yushchenko, and at their use as a weapon of war—or of terrorism—from the sulfur used by the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War to the sarin released in Tokyo’s subway system and the anthrax introduced into the U.S. postal system. Nature’s poisons, too, come under his scrutiny, with stories of venomous snakes, killer fish, poisonous insects and the tiniest poisoners, the microbes. MacInnes wraps up his tour by going deep inside the cell and pointing to the chemicals that induce apoptosis, the death of individual cells necessary to organ development in all creatures. Poison, it seems, is everywhere—in us and around us—and is even essential to life.
Never quite jells into a coherent work, but its many individual parts are great fun to read.