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Given arsenic’s popularity and notoriety as a poison in the history of civilization , it should not be surprising to learn that it has also frequently been employed in fiction.Arsenic has played an especially important role in detective or crime fiction, although it is also present in other genres, from pulp fiction to classic literature. Arsenic in Detective Fiction Arsenic is one of the most commonly used toxins in literary works, especially mysteries. Toxicologist John Harris Trestrail III has analyzed 187 works of detective fiction that involve criminal poisoning and compiled a list of the poisons employed and their frequency of use.Arsenic came out third on his list, appearing thirteen times, behind only cyanide (twenty-five) and mushrooms (fifteen). Of the seventy or so other poisons identified by Trestrail, none was employed more than six times.1 Although there were novels and stories that could be considered mysteries published before the nineteenth century, most scholars date the beginning of the detective story to Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”2 In this work, Poe introduced his brilliant French detective, C. Auguste Dupin, a private citizen who solves a murder that baffles the police (a common theme in detective fiction). Dupin also appeared in two later stories, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842), based on a real-life murder, and “The Purloined Letter” (1844). In each case, Dupin uses amazing deductive powers to solve a crime, much like his later fictional colleague, Sherlock Holmes. 53 c h a p t e r t w o Poison in the Plot Arsenic in Fiction 02_KingOfPoisons_Chapter02_REV1 9/21/12 1:57 PM Page 53 54 KING OF POISONS Many considerWilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) to be the first detective novel,3 although it was originally published in serial form (as were many of the novels of the time) in All the Year Round, the magazine of his friend Charles Dickens. T. S. Eliot called the book “the first, the longest and the best of the modern English detective novel.” This was soon followed by the publication of six installments of Dickens’s own mystery novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in 1870. Dickens died before he could complete the work, but the unfinished novel was soon issued in book form. The most famous detective in all of fiction appeared in the following decade, with the publication of the novel AStudy in Scarlet in 1887.The detective was Sherlock Holmes, and the author was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a physician who enjoyed more success as a writer. Holmes uses superior intellect , astute observation, deductive reasoning, and forensic science to solve the most puzzling of mysteries.With the four novels and fifty-six short stories that feature Holmes, the genre of detective fiction was firmly established. Poe did not make any use of poisons in his Dupin stories. In spite of his main character’s forensic expertise, Doyle used poisons sparingly in the Holmes canon. Holmes’s companion and the narrator of the stories, Dr. John Watson, noted that the great detective encountered only ten poison victims. None of these cases involved arsenic. The third of the early founders of detective fiction,Wilkie Collins, did utilize arsenic in one of his later novels, The Law and the Lady. Published in 1875, the book involves what may possibly be the first example of arsenic poisoning in a work of detective fiction. The Law and the Lady revolves around the narrator, an English woman named Valeria Brinton, who in the first pages marries and becomes Mrs. Eustace Woodville, or so she believes. Valeria soon becomes aware that her husband’s true surname is Macallan.When she confronts him with the question of why he married under a false name, Eustace refuses to discuss his past. Undaunted by her husband’s warning that if she learns the truth about this matter, their marriage will come to an end,Valeria decides to play detective in an effort to uncover Eustace’s secret. She discovers that Eustace had been married previously and that his first wife, Sara, had died of arsenic poisoning . Worse still, Eustace had been tried for Sara’s murder. The trial took place in Scotland, where the couple lived at the time, and resulted in a verdict of not proven. Eustace feels that because of this ambiguous verdict, he has 02_KingOfPoisons_Chapter02_REV1 9/21/12 1:57 PM Page 54 POISON IN THE PLOT: ARSENIC IN FICTION 55 not...


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