Here is the very first of the books I’ve read in my 20 Books of Summer 2016! To find out about the rest of the books on my list, I have dedicated a page which if all goes according to plan will include the entire list of my book reviews by 5 September 2016.
And what a start to the challenge – this is one of those fascinating books where you don’t know quite what you are about to learn from one page to the next. If you too love learning more about poisons and those who administer them, you can’t go wrong with this book. Even for those of you who don’t have quite the same niche interest as me, there is plenty to ponder on the literary side, those myths, fairy tales through Shakespeare and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and taking in a few other’s along the way.
The backbone of the book is the discovery the author made that her paternal Grandfather had poisoned two of his young sons in their Australian home in 1927. The author started to unravel the truth behind this family tale in 1980 by contacting her Grandmother’s sister who one afternoon agreed to be interviewed and told her the facts, the background to the perpetrator William Macbeth, and what life was like for the family at the time, and afterwards.
The book does read a little like a stream of consciousness but fortunately that stream is one of knowledge coupled with intelligence so it maintains a loose kind of structure. Along the way we learn about the origins of some of the popular poisons, famous poisoners which include those who used this method as suicide, forensics and even a poisoned circus elephant gets a place in this eclectic read.
My interest in poisoners has me fairly well-versed in the most infamous of this group including Crippen, Florence Maybrick, Madeline Smith amongst a whole host of others and I got to know some new ones too with the mini case histories the author provides us with. Gail Bell also looks at the notion that poisoning was a woman’s crime, sneaky and devious and using the traditional woman’s nurturing hand to provide poison rather than sustenance. She examines the statistics which bear out the truth that most non-accidental poisonings are against family members. As you can tell there is a lot to enjoy and discover but perhaps as a pay-off there is little that goes too deeply below the surface which I have to confess suited me perfectly – this is perhaps a friendlier read than the more learned book that The Secret Poisoner was and fortunately doesn’t include the gut-wrenching descriptions of poisons doing their work in the human body. What Bell does give us is a look at what action different poisons take on the body, a physiological study rather than one of the symptoms which again, I use the word again, was fascinating!
I have to confess that the subject matter took a turn for the truly bizarre when the author gave some of the characters, including Cleopatra, an imaginary rescue through quick action of those around them, for me the book could have lost these imaginations.
By the end of this meandering look at a whole range of poisoners both real and literary, we find out the truth of what happened to the poor Macbeth boys. A sad tale indeed for the whole family, including the author’s father who was fostered out to a rural farm to carry out chores for his bed and board.
I’d like to say a big thank you to Hayley of Rather Too Fond of Books who took the time to suggest this one to me following my review of The Secret Poisoner – that’s the best aspect of book blogging – I would never have come across this book, published in 2002 by Macmillan without such a recommendation.
To see what everyone else is reading look out for #20booksofsummer on twitter or go and check out the list of participants at Cathy 746 and of course the lovely Cathy herself, who came up with this challenge!