Poisons and Poisoners: with Historical Accounts of Some Famous Mysteries in Ancient and Modern Times

By C. J. S. Thomson (Charles John Samuel)

 

Thompson, C. J. S.(1993 [1931]). Poisons and poisoners: With historical accounts of some famous mysteries in ancient and modern times. New York: Barnes & Noble.

This is an older work (1931) which was reprinted in the 1990s for a good reason. Thompson’s historical overview of poisons and poisoners is excellent. It covers the ancient world up through the 20th century in well laid out chapters. The earlier chapters discuss early plant and animal poisons used by tribes (think poison arrows) and early civilizations across the globe.

He points out that people discovered that if they shot someone with an arrow that had been previously pulled from a body, it had a more lethal effect (the arrows weren’t cleaned after being pulled from a body and helped add disease and infection to the wound). Soon folks started deliberately dipping arrows in blood and feces to make them more potent. Others used plant and animal toxins to coat their weapons.

Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, especially Italy, became a hot bed of poisoners as people discovered ways of eliminating the competition through nefarious ways. Italy led the way, but the techniques and formulas for effective poisons soon spread.

In the 19th and 20th centuries Thompson gives examples of famous poison cases. Many times the poisoner had some sort of medical training which enabled them to procure and administer poisons. Also, poisons were easily obtainable for supposedly innocent purposes. Fly paper was sold with arsenic. If one soaked the paper (as one did in using it), one would get a highly toxic arsenical solution.  

This is an enjoyable jaunt through the history of poisons with the types and uses explained. In addition, some of the more memorable of famous poison cases (usually the more modern ones are from Britain) are laid out for the reader’s enlightenment.

Ten Second Staircase by Christopher Fowler

Fowler, C. (2006). Ten second staircase. New York: Bantam.

This is yet another in the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) Mysteries series. Again, Fowler has us following multiple mysteries. One concerns the Leister Square Vampire—an ongoing cold case more than 30 years old. The other is a string of murders committed by someone called The Highwayman.

First an installation artist, Saralla White, is found floating upside down in her exhibit – dead. Then Danny Martell, a TV host and teen lifestyle guru with a dubious record, is found electrocuted in a gym. He was alone at the time—no one entered the room after he did. Alexander Paradine, an alternative comedian related to the Earl of Devonshire, and Anthony Sarne are killed around the same time. Paradine is lured to an abandoned building to do a voice over for a commercial in a sound studio. Instead he falls through a hole in the floor neatly hidden with rug tiles—four stories down plus a basement kills him. Sarne is taking a shower after swimming in a public pool at night when someone pours petrol through the shower pipe and then drops a match through a hole in the glass roof.

WARNING…  ENDING SPOILER– do not continue if you don’t want to hear the ending!

The PCU folks are under threat of closure unless they solve the rash of murders and provide light in the Leister Square Vampire mystery. As it turns out, both are somehow connected. A private school teacher, Brilliant Kingsmere, just happens to be the son of the Leister Square Vampire. The Highwayman, turns out not to be a man at all but a group of Kingsmere’s students who together commit these acts of murder because they are bored and feel dead to the world.

Bryant & May on the Loose: A Peculiar Crimes Unit Mystery by Christopher Fowler

Fowler, C. (2009). Bryant & May on the loose: A Peculiar Crimes Unit mystery. New York: Bantam Books.

What a wonderful novel. Christopher Fowles has come through again. This time the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) has been disbanded and kicked out of their office. Things look bleak until a member finds a dead body missing its head. Suddenly the PCU folks are back at it. Of course they have a makeshift office with no access to any police databases and are unpaid, but if they can pull it off they may be reinstated.

In addition to the body, someone is dressing as a stag and frightening folks in the Kings Cross area of London. There is a large government sponsored building project going on there to revitalize an area that is crime ridden and derelict. ADAPT has been working on the project for 13 years and has been buying people’s property to put in the new buildings. However, the architect in charge, Maddox, has realized he has overlooked one vital piece of property that could bring the whole project crashing down along with his career.

In 1940 during the blitz, the Porter’s house was destroyed (ll Camley ). The deed was hidden in the basement and just uncovered by one of the workers clearing the area for ADAPT. The worker is a good guy (T. Delaney) and wants to find the rightful owner. Maddox has a lunch meeting with Delaney to convince him to turn over the deed to ADAPT but Delaney is too smart. Unfortunately this means Maddox hires someone to burglarize Delaney and when Delaney surprises him, the villain (Mr. Fox) kills Delaney. Mr. Fox is hired by another person for a different burglary and this also results in a murder. Mr. Fox knows the person dressing as a stag to frighten off the ADAPT workers, so he dumps the bodies and removes the heads to try and incriminate Xander Toth (the stag man). It almost works out. But Mr. Fox wants to clean up all who know about his involvement (the folks who hired him) so there are two more murders.

Meanwhile the PCU folks are closing in. They finally put the pieces together and catch Mr. Fox, but at the last minute he kills someone helping the PCU regular staff (Liberty DuCain) and escapes. Now Bryant has made it his mission to find Mr. Fox … but we will have to wait for another book for that.

Part of the charm of the PCU books, is the delving into London’s hidden secrets. In Bryant & May on the Loose, we get history lessons about the Kings Cross, Battle Bridge area. This area has great historic significance as many famous wells and springs were found here, as well as pagan temples, one of which later became the location of the first Christian church. Fascinating stuff.

Best of John Bellairs 2: Johnny Dixon Mysteries by John Bellairs

Bellairs, J. (2005). The best of John Bellairs 2: The Johnny Dixson mysteries. New York: Dial Books.

This collection includes three Johnny Dixon mysteries: The Curse of the Blue Figurine 1983, The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt 1984, and The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull 1984. All feature young Johnny Dixon whose mother died of cancer and whose father has agreed to go on active duty again for the US Air Force during the Korean Conflict. This places the time period in the early 1950s. Johnny goes to live with his grandparents in Massachusetts and becomes friends with an old professor (Professor Childermas) who lives across the street.

In The Curse of the Blue Figurine, Johnny find a hidden Egyptian figurine with a curse put on it by a former priest –turned “evil” sorcerer. This mysterious creature meets Johnny and gets him to put on a ring which then gives the sorcerer control over Johnny.

In The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt Johnny goes away to scout camp but finds a secret path to a mansion which contains a hidden mysterious will. Along the way, Johnny annoys a powerful sorceress who is the relative of the deceased and does not want a will to be found. She controls a creature which has killed several other people and which she now aims at Johnny.

In The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull Johnny and the Professor go on a trip to see an old clock build by the Professor’s father. During the night bizarre things happen and in a semi dream state Johnny goes into the room with the clock and disturbs a miniature skull that was in a diorama in the clock. He puts this skull in his pocket where it allows evil forces to control him. After they return from the trip, the professor mysteriously vanishes. He has been kidnapped by the Ghost/ sorcerer of a man who had a grudge against one of the professor’s ancestors. Johnny, a friend Fergi, and the local parish priest go on an adventure to Vinalhaven, Maine to rescue the professor.

These are all fun stories but it is interesting to note that in Bellairs’ earlier works (Lewis Barnavelt mysteries) the witches and warlocks were good as well as bad. In the later books they seem to be leaning to the bad side. This is unfortunate as I prefer the older more balanced stories.

The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs

Bellairs, J. (1969). The face in the frost. London: Macmillan Company.

The Face in the Frost is one of Bellairs’ works for adults (as opposed to his children’s and YA –young adult literature) It features two friends who are wizards (Prospero and Roger Bacon) who live in a land with the North Kingdom and the South Kingdom. Strange things start happening to Prospero while Roger is visiting (strange shadows, creatures creeping out of the night to get him, etc.). They figure out that a wizard Prospero once had as a classmate, Melichus, is trying to bring destruction to the land and kill Prospero since he is the only one who can stop Melichus. Prospero and Roger start on a quest to find Melichus and stop him but are separated in the process. We follow along with Prospero on his supernatural quest as he is attacked and frightened by too many creatures and things to mention. Of course in the end he reunites with Roger for a while and they find Melichus. Then again they are separated while Prospero is transported to another world with Melichus on his trail trying to kill him. Fortunately all ends well. I won’t tell you the ending or more of the plot because it is something that really must be read for oneself. This is Edgar Allen Poe with humor and wonderful illustrations by Marilyn Fitschen. Enjoy!

The Sorceress by Michael Scott

Scott, M. (2009). The sorceress. New York: Delacorte Press.

The Sorceress is the third book in the Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series (book one was The Alchymist, and book two was The Magician). The main storyline is that Nicholas Flamel and his wife Perenelle (the Alchemyst and the Sorceress) are guardians of a magic book which makes them immortal and has magical spells that could destroy the world or make it a paradise. One of the spells will bring the Dark Elders (god-like beings who roamed the world before the humani came into being) back from the shadow realms and allow them to take over, possibly subjecting humani to slavery or eating them. Some immortals such as Dr. John Dee and Machiavelli (among many others) work for the Elders and are trying to steal the book and allow the Elders to return. Prophesy has it that the twins of legend (a boy with a solid gold aura and a girl with a solid silver aura) have the power to save the world (or destroy it). The Flamels have been searching for the twins for centuries and have finally found them in the form of two 21st century kids, Sophie and Josh Newman. In book one the twins discover a whole new world they had never expected—one of gods and legends and fantastical creatures. They begin to be trained in magic and are chased across countries by Dee and his henchmen. Dee has stolen the magic book except Josh tore the last pages away. Dee needs the last pages to allow the Elders to return. Book Three finds Nicolas Flamel and the twins fleeing Paris and entering London with Dee on their heels. Meanwhile Perenelle is trapped on Alcatraz battling with the Sphinx, neriads, the Old Man of the Sea, The Morrigan, and Billy the Kid among others.

Michael Scott is a scholar of mythology and this series is a wonderful blend of myths and legends with modern day technology. A wonderful read.

The Best of John Bellairs by John Bellairs

 

Bellairs, J. (1998). The best of John Bellairs. New York: Barnes & Noble books.

 

This collected work contains three of John Bellairs’ children’s works: The House with a Clock in its Walls 1973 Illustrated by Edward Gorey, The Figure in the Shadows 1975 Illustrated by Mercer Mayer, and The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring 1976 Illustrated by Richard Egielski.

All three of these stories (which are kind of a series but can be read on their own) are wonderful. They feature the orphaned boy, Lewis Barnavelt who goes to live with his uncle, Jonathan Barnavelt after his parents are killed in a car accident. Jonathan lives next door to Mrs. Zimmerman (Florence). Both Florence and Jonathan are witches (also referred to as wizard or warlock). Florence has her Doctorial degree in magic Doctorus Magicorum Artes[?] or D.Mag.A. from a German University while Jonathan is a “parlor” magician—he does real magic, but just not as powerful as Mrs. Zimmerman. These wonderful stories are great in their attempt at providing positive female and male role models who don’t need to follow the traditional role society sets out (especially in the 1970s). Although in the later books Mrs. Zimmerman does lose some of her powers when her magic staff (disguised as an umbrella) is destroyed. This is unfortunate since it was quite refreshing to see a single (although she had been married) woman with more advanced knowledge and power than the males in the story.

An absolute wonderful read – all of the books. The illustrations are equally wonderful. These books stand the test of time and are just as wonderful in 2009 as they were in the 1970s!!