Monday, January 20, 2020

Name Your Poison

I've never poisoned anyone. Even after I dropped the lemon meringue pie taking it out of the oven, and it landed on the floor, miraculously intact and I scooped it up and served it to my supper guests with a bland expression, they all survived unscathed.  (Science later proved that the 10 second rule is right - it isn't long enough for bacteria to get organized and climb on.)

And I haven't poisoned anyone in fiction, either.  I'm not sure why, but perhaps it's because using poison seemed a very complicated thing.  You might be able to research the likely effects, but then you'd have to work out when your poisoner could use it so that he/she wasn't the obvious suspect, and whether the victim wouldn't realise, as PG Wodehouse's hero Rollo Podmarsh did, that 'the arrowroot had tasted rummy.'

Then of course, how would someone go about obtaining strychnine, say, when Health and Safety regulations have done away with the handy gardener's shed with all those pesticides that worked just as well on human pests in the classic murders? A knock on the back of the head with a blunt instrument when no one is around is easier and certainly more true to life.

Then I went to visit the Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland.

The gardens are well worth a visit anyway and the castle was used in the filming of Harry Potter, but it was the garden where every plant was poisonous that fascinated me. Smelling or touching is forbidden. It was pretty horrifying to realize how many of the plants I lovingly treasure in my own garden (and smell and touch) have lethal qualities, and how easy it would be for anyone, with the help of their beautifully illustrated brochure, to literally choose their poison from the handy line-up in the herbaceous border.

Fancy complete kidney failure for your target?  There's the clematis over there, with the pretty pink flowers. Or the rhododendron - put your beehive next to it, regularly spread the honey on the victim's toast and oops! vomiting, dehydration, tremors,  convulsions and death.  Then there's a whole range of bulbs that could be  popped into a delicious, spicy stew - snowdrop, bluebell, lily of the valley - with gratifying results like intense sleepiness followed by coma and heart failure.  There are dozens and dozens more - like that hydrangea, containing cyanide.

Every part of the innocent daffodil  is poisonous.  During the Second World War there were numerous cases of people slicing up the bulbs as a substitute for scarce onions.  Some survived, some didn't.  So perhaps the villain could claim to be a non-gardener who had made a terrible mistake?  It's certainly an idea.

I think it's a little bit too Golden Age for the books I write, but I'm sure there's a good plot - in both senses - out there in the garden!


Anna said...

My early-morning brain is hyperactive, immediately envisioning a would-be villain who plans a complex garden poisoning that doesn't come off (after much comic would-it won't-it backing and forthing), leaving the intended victim whole and healthy and the would-be villain, still undiscovered, slinking off in terminal disappointment, never to attempt another poisoning again.

Aline Templeton said...

Surely with so many other plants right there in his garden to choose from, he'd be unable to resist trying again...

Sybil Johnson said...

I have heard of this garden. Sounds like an interesting place to visit, but I'd probably be quite scared. There's a good book called "Wicked Plants" that talks about poisonous plants. An interesting read.

Aline Templeton said...

What really scared me about the Poison Garden was how many of my own plants can be lethal. I knew about the danger of laburnum for small children but when I think of them playing around when I thought it was perfectly safe, my blood runs cold.