The Poisoner’s (paperback) giveaway

My book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, came out in paperback this week. My publisher kept the beautiful cover – my all time favorite – with the test-tube glowing like a moon over 1920s New York City and the title printed on an old-time poison label.

When I look at it I see an amazing year since hardback publication. I spent most of it traveling around the country – and sometimes outside it – talking about poison, murder and a pair of crusading scientists determined to change the world. I remember the hours I’ve spent answering letters and e-mail from readers, some of whom wanted me to solve their family murders. A lawyer from Kentucky called to describe the way his step-mother had killed his father with backyard weeds. He’d decided to have the body exhumed. “I know my sister-in-law poisoned my brother,” wrote one man. “I saved a few hairs from his head before she had him cremated. What should I have them tested for?”

My publisher sent me on a ten-city book tour with a strong  advance warning: do not tell people how to kill each other. And I didn’t.  But they asked. “I’m belong to the Hemlock Society,” one woman said. “And I’m just wondering if there’s any special compound you might recommend for a peaceful death.” Sometimes these questions can be a little scary. But so, apparently, can I.  At a neighborhood party for the book, people on my block reassured my husband that they were there for him, just in case.

He’s still safely drinking coffee, in case you wondered, although for some reason he’s quit drinking it with me. He just didn’t expect, when we got married, to find himself living with a woman whose personal library is packed with books on lethal substances. “I found some really good ingredients for an excellent poison at the grocery store,” I reported one day. “Is that so?” he replied, taking himself and his cup elsewhere.

I started a blog – this blog, in fact, and I thought it would be a great place to tell those wonderful, troubling stories of poisons, of our chemical past. And I did that. But I found myself as often writing of our chemical present, of lead poisoning, of modern murder, of carbon monoxide, as murderous today as it was in the 1920s.  I was reminded often of how much I love chemistry – that fundamental, beautiful and sometimes sinister science. And I’ve learned more about it in this year of trying to illuminate the chemical web that weyett navigate every day.

It’s been an exhausting, exciting and, yes, educational year leading up to this paperback. And in honor of it, I’d like to propose an exchange with you, the readers of this blog. Send me your ideas for a Speakeasy Science blog post – a poison, a murder, a compound, a dangerous plant, a corner of our chemical world that needs investigation. Just send them in as a comment.

I’ll pick my favorites – up to ten – and the winners will receive a copy of the paperback from me. I’ll contact you directly if you’ve won and arrange to send you a copy.  True, you can buy it yourself for a great price. But I hope you’ll like the idea of having your interesting ideas explored here. And, don’t forget, all winner’s copies will be autographed by the author herself!

I’ll be accepting ideas in the comment section for a full week. You are welcome to suggest more than one idea, of course.  Hoping to hear from many of you in this celebration of The Poisoner’s Handbook paperback!

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63 Responses to The Poisoner’s (paperback) giveaway

  1. Tyler says:

    My Suggestion for a Poison –> how about unintentional suicide a la Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, etc… etc…

  2. Tyler says:

    another suggestion –> a widely taken psychotropic med. but particularly deadly when taken over a limit

  3. Ricin. Scary, scary.

  4. Christie says:

    One word: Tetrodotoxin. You can approach the fugu angle, the voodoo zombies, and more… such an amazing poison.

  5. Paul says:

    Arsenic and Old Lace has been a favorite movie of mine since childhood. I’d love to see a post (or series of posts) on poison use in film, both when accurate and not accurate.

  6. Geeka says:

    I’d really like to know more about discovering what poisons killed people after exhumation. I keep hearing stories about how people are dug up and tests are done and they discover that they were poisoned. Do these test have to change based upon preservation techniques? Do degradation products differ after time? What happens legally if suddenly we can test for something that we couldn’t before, is that justification for exhumation?
    Are any of the techniques really reliable?

  7. FiainRos says:

    I have an interest in HF, hydrofluoric acid. When studying chemistry at the University of Arizona in the late 1990s, my summer REU project required use of a very old atomic absorption spectrophotometer. In order to use this instrument, very few solvents could be used to dissolve materials for analysis. HF was the only choice for my particular material. HF was a little scary to use as an undergrad, especially as using HF was avoided as much as possible in every other lab.

    I’d like to know more. I know why HF is considered a poison, but it bears explanation for others. In addition, was it used widely at any point in time? Is it used less or more now? What deaths have occurred from HF exposure?

  8. shieldsy says:

    What about something a little off track? I think a post about people intentionally being given parasites would be really interesting. Has this even ever happened?

    Or you could write about the tunnelers/miners who dug out our infrastructure (subways/bridges/canals) and the gasses they faced and how they dealt with pressure.

  9. Gaythia says:

    I’ve worked with HF as an etchent in the semiconductor industry, where I’ve also regulated its disposal. I think that the dividing line between something that it needed for health but has a limited therapeutic range and is toxic at higher levels would be an interesting topic. Fluoride, for example. I already have a hardcover copy of your excellent book and donate my share in this contest to FiainRos, who asked about HF above.

  10. David Manly says:

    I’ve always wanted to know about snake venom being injected into people, not just by snakes themselves, but by people taking the venom of that snake and using it to kill their enemies.

  11. Christie says:

    Ooo! Or you could write about Botulism toxin. Always amused that people intentionally inject a deadly poison into their faces to try and look prettier.

  12. David Manly says:

    Or, what about insecticides and organophosphates?

    They are such a rich area to discuss, as you can discuss DDT (remember that old commercial where they spray it on people to show no side effects?), the book Silent Spring and the drive for people to eliminate insects is so strong that it even can cost people’s health.

    Also, another good topic are plants that people do not think are poisonous, but actually ARE, such as Hemlock, Foxglove, Hellebore, Nightshade and Yew?

  13. David Manly says:

    Whoops, sorry for the all italics! It should be:

    They are such a rich area to discuss, as you can discuss DDT (remember that old commercial where they spray it on people to show no side effects?), the book Silent Spring and the drive for people to eliminate insects is so strong that it even can cost people’s health.

    Also, another good topic are plants that people do not think are poisonous, but actually ARE, such as Hemlock, Foxglove, Hellebore, Nightshade and Yew?

  14. Deborah Blum says:

    Now that’s really nice of you, Gaythia. Good idea about fluoride and company as well.

  15. Acetaminophen! Which I understand is one of the leading causes of liver failure in North America, but this factoid always surprises the heck out of people when I tell them. (Even if it isn’t, please blog about it anyway so I will know the truth.)

  16. I am very interested in herbs, so my suggestion is in plants that people keep close to them. The houseplant, dieffenbachia, or dumb cane, for instance. The sap, when ingested, can affect the vocal cords, rendering the person unable to speak. A beautiful garden herb is aconite, or monkshood. Very poisonous. Foxglove, clematis, bryony, bloodwort… the list is endless, it seems. Would be interesting to find out how these were used historically as medicines and poisons.

  17. Joyce says:

    I would be curious about the stories of ordinary, every day foods and drinks that taken in the wrong order and time can be disastrous.
    either subtle, or not so as I recall a story/rumor from years back that drinking milk after consuming certain alcoholic drinks can lead to instant formation of a solid block in ones stomach.
    anyways, just some thoughts.

  18. Faye says:

    Jellyfish Stings.

  19. Nate Emmott says:

    I would love to see dyes covered – especially food dyes, but clothing dyes and even laser dyes are fascinating. Food dyes are interesting because they are ingested and a fair few have been determined toxic after the fact (like “Butter” Yellow). Not to mention I have some friends allergic to Red #40 – and after finding out it’s an Azo dye, I’m not terribly surprised!

  20. Would love to know more about the use of natural poisons (e.g. snake venom) for therapeutic purposes.

  21. CK says:

    I’m a sucker for shiny – what about poisoning by silver or gold?

  22. Steve says:

    I am always curious about how essential aspects of our diet could also be poisonous. For example, I’ve heard about how water could, in some instances (probably very specific instances), be poisonous. I would love to learn more about these instances and perhaps other essential dietary components that could be dangerous.

  23. Kate says:

    How about poison gardens? Or maybe the problems that were faced by pioneers with the various poisons/venoms they encountered as they crossed the country?

  24. Kate says:

    Or people who have died of sepsis – blood poisoning?

  25. Kevin Z says:

    I would love to know more about how people discovered they could eat poisonous organisms (i.e. pufferfish, snakes, lionfish, jellies, certain plants). I mean clearly there had to be a history of trial and error…

  26. Marc says:

    I came here specifically to request HF acid, after seeing how they used to transport it at my old workplace, It was in a 1 liter bottle, in a plastic bag, inside a big tub on wheels, (think porcelain radio flyer) with a second person walking 10 paces behind, presumably to ring the alarm if there was a spill and the guy pulling the wagon was killed immediately, or something. It was also mentionned a long time ago on an episode of ER, where a worker was splashed, and was sure to die, but with enough of a delay to have many tragic goodbyes and musings on life. The inexorable quality of that man’s death was very dramatic.

    Although it may be more mundate, H2S may be worth mentioning in light of the trend of “detergent suicides” that started in Japan, and seems to be coming accross to america. You have to love an odourless gass that can kill right away. When I was in the oil industry, workers told stories of pidgeons falling dead to the ground, having crossed a stream of H2S in mid-flight.

    Really enjoyed the book, btw, and I have it in hardcover, so you can give the softcover to another commenter…

    Regards,

    Marc from Calgary

  27. Tyler says:

    Two more suggestions — 1) VX nerve gas 2) curare

  28. Audrey says:

    I would be very interested to hear about inadvertent overdoses on vitamins, minerals, and miscellaneous alternative medicine supplements. I’ve heard stories of people who’ve turned themselves blue from taking colloidal silver and children who’ve died from overdosing on their parents’ iron-containing multivitamins. I would like to know more about the whole topic.

  29. sulliwan says:

    I would love a post about limnic eruptions, although extremely rare, they are really scary.

    If that doesn’t fit well into the theme of the blog, how about a post about radiation poisoning. Curie, Byers, Litvinenko, lots of high profile cases to talk about there.

  30. Zan says:

    I would be very interested in reading a post about drug users being poisoned by drugs that have been intentionally cut with other substances and people who synthesize dangerous drugs who may be poisoned by the process.

    I’m especially interested in the human element of this sort of poisoning, how the medical profession and general community react to the deaths of people doing something obviously dangerous and unregulated.

  31. Laura Dodd says:

    I am a beekeeper, so am interested in the chemicals in bee venom and the effects they have on tissue. How does honeybee venom compare in composition to that of other bees, wasps and hornets?

  32. Heidi says:

    I’ve been reading a lot of gardening catalogs lately, and notice plants marked “poisonous, keep seeds away from children and pets.” Could someone (hypothetically of course) grow castor beans, serve them up to granny, and feign innocence when she gets poisoned?

  33. Ruth Seeley says:

    I’m interested in the poisons that aren’t poisonous to all. There was an episode of – Law and Order maybe? CSI? – one of those crime/cop/jury shows anyway – where a dissenting juror was allergic to peanuts and was killed by another juror who knew of his allergy. The fact that peanut oil is tasteless and odourless (although peanuts most definitely are not) fascinates me (after a spectacular allergic reaction at a Greek restaurant and having to become a sleuth to figure out what triggered it – they had in fact used peanut oil rather than olive oil when preparing the food). I’m also interested in substances whose chemical properties change when cooked. Spinach is, for instance, one of the most violent food allergies – but people who can’t eat raw spinach can eat it cooked, because its chemical composition is changed by the cooking process.

  34. Judy says:

    As a second to sulliwan, radiation poisoning. How many people died before the danger of X-rays was understood? Rosalind Franklin worked extensively with X-rays to determine the crystal structures of proteins, and died too young — and too soon to share the Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick for determining the structure of DNA. How long did it take before researchers and medical personnel started wearing those lovely lead aprons?

  35. Danielle Venton says:

    Hi Deborah,

    I would love to read about the plants of the nightshade family. Any poisons with historical, and vaguely romantic, back stories (Parthian war-era troop poisoning and ladies of old who used belladonna to appear wide-eyed) are just irresistible.

    Cheers,
    Danielle

  36. Becca says:

    I’d like to read a post on how placebos (inert thing helps), nocebos (inert thing harms), or that-other-cebo-whose name-I-don’t-recall (non-inert thing produces no effect or an opposite effect than that expected) have been observed with regard to poisons, actual or unfairly accused.

  37. Amy says:

    How about mercury poisoning? I’m old enough to have played with quicksilver in my high school science class (“ooo! Shiny! And liquid!”), so it was startling when my nephew reported that a hazmat squad was called in after a mercury thermometer got broken at his school. There’s the whole mad hatter thing, and lots of history of compounds like mercury cyanide being used by murders.

  38. Julie says:

    Hi-
    Tetrodotoxin was shipped all over the world by my company when I worked in biotech a few years back. Every time someone would order it, they would fill out and sign a form from the CDC. I always wondered what good the form really did- I think they had to certify that they had less than the legal amount in their laboratory. Really nowadays (not even six years later) I would imagine a biotech company would need to do more than sign some paperwork- perhaps investigate the possible terrorist activities of anybody interested in ordering tetrodotoxin. (Just as a side note- it is rather ironic people serve it with fish in fine restaurants- apparently a teensy bit makes your mouth numb. Hopefully the restaurant never puts too much tetrodotoxin in the food- it would kill you)

    The chemical that really baffled me when I regulated chemicals was anthrax. What I didn’t know (and perhaps wish I still didn’t know) is that anybody can order all the individual components of anthrax and then assemble them in their lab. Anthrax as a whole substance was watched like a hawk. You had to sell your soul to purchase it. But- by law, any old person could order all the components- no questions asked. Rather scary eh?

  39. Julie says:

    Oh yes- and I forgot to say the mechanism of action of anthrax is fascinating. I had a research friend write a grant on studying its effects and I had never heard of such a mechanism. I actually have forgotten exactly what it was- but it was interesting.

  40. Grant says:

    As poisons are your thing and you’re more distant to the local fuss acrylamide might be on to consider – ?

    Acrylamide is used by molecular biologists (e.g. in acrylamide gels) and the subject of this local case: http://www.crime.co.nz/c-files.asp?ID=46

    (In the interests of disclosure I worked at the medical school of the same city as the accused.)

    Almost forgot!: As you know I already have your book courtesy David Kroll. (Reviewed briefly on my blog if anyone needs “yet another” review!) Thing is, count me out of the competition, unless passing a copy on to others counts.

  41. Cindy Gresham says:

    How about some cute and furry poisoners–(non-human) mammals that have poison or venom. Platypus, and solenodon, I think? Are there others? How did they evolve these poisons?

  42. Grant says:

    One way is for the toxin proteins to evolve is to be diverged copies of normal proteins safely tucked away in a gland (so they don’t harm the animal carrying the toxins). I mentioned it in passing in an article I wrote on some research identifying platypus toxins – just in case it interests you.

  43. Grant says:

    Oh rats, what I get for pressing ‘return’ in a hurry at 3am…. The first bit should read ‘One way for toxin proteins to evolve’ of course. Sorry.

  44. Laura in AL says:

    Loved your book! Especially since I was a forensic toxicologist for about 6 years.

    I’d like to see some more information regarding the fine line of prescription drug treatment/overdose levels, like for methadone, etc. Chemical tolerance has always interested me and I think you’d do a good write-up.

  45. Jessica M. says:

    I’d be interested to see an article about once common household things that were later found to be poisonous, and their impact. For example, I recently read an article about emerald green, or Paris green – green paint used in the 1800s to color everything from wallpaper to children’s toys, clothes to cake decorations. It contained arsenic though, and eventually people realized this was causing health problems and even death.

  46. Aaron Rowe says:

    It would be really nice to read a post about Viktor Yushchenko, and his unpleasant experience with dioxin.

  47. Woah, that is scary! Both the tetradoxin and the anthrax. Somewhere in a mound of paperwork lies a signature of a zombie master…

  48. You can get a cocktail called a cement mixer which I think is Bailey’s and lime juice. It curdles and is disgusting! As for becoming a block in your stomach… I think it’s an urban myth.

  49. Platypuses make a poison that can’t be soothed by pain medication, including morphine. The excruciating pain lasts for days. The platypus is one of only a few mammals to be venomous, adding to its general weirdness. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Platypus_venom

  50. Coturnix says:

    How about substances that are poisonous for specific animals e.g., plants that cows, goats and sheep can gorge on, while a little nibble will kill a horse. Things that kill cats but not dogs. And why.

  51. I’d love to see your take on the alleged poisoning of astronomer Tycho Brahe. It’s got everything: the history of science, the alchemical uses of mercury, political intrigue, artificial noses. Could be a humdinger of a post.

  52. Alisa says:

    I’d love to know more about biological poisons that are used without modification – for example, native people using excretions of poisonous animals to poison weapons. Obviously this was widespread in the past, but in modern times with the advent of labs and purification, what sorts of toxic substances are still used wholesale from the natural environment, and for what reasons?

  53. madhu says:

    Datura which is a beautiful plant and flower- grows wild easily where I come from, and also seen on the beaches of San Diego- where I now often wander.

  54. madhu says:

    again, could not resist another comment- Dioxin poisoning of the ?president of Ukraine

  55. Alisa says:

    Here’s another thought I had – what about compounds where one version is a poison, and the other isn’t? (This will entail a short explanation of chirality…) One such being thalidomide, where even if you give a person the ‘safe’ enantiomer, your body will turn half of it into the teratogenic one… I don’t know of any other examples, so I’d love to learn more!

  56. Christie says:

    Love that paper. Did I mention I study lionfish toxins? And strangely enough, one of the only proteins currently known that seems closely related to the family of toxic proteins in lionfish, stonefish, and scorpionfish venoms is in platypuses… convergent evolution, perhaps?

  57. Grant says:

    Did I mention I study lionfish toxins?

    Did I mention I’m a computational biologist?
    (I enjoy looking at proteins…)

    I’ll try find time to look myself, but if you’ve time I’d love references. If you do (don’t put yourself out), it might be best to email or tweet them so I don’t miss them.

    Thanks for tweeting the post, too. I enjoyed writing it, esp. how they created the toxins rather than tried to extract them.

  58. Jessica says:

    could you do one on spontaneous human combustion?

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  60. Cindy Gresham says:

    Thanks for posting the link to your platypus article. Good stuff! I think I will link to your RSS feed too :-)

  61. Ed Darrell says:

    Way too late to get a book, I’m sure, but I’d be happy to see someone talk about “loco weed,” the plants in the west known to mark uranium deposits, and which take up heavy metals, so that if a grazing animal eats them, the animal goes “loco” and sometimes dies.

    I’m also interested in urushiol (I think that’s the correct spelling), the stuff in poison ivy and poison oak that causes dramatic contact dermititis in almost everybody — but not quite everybody. Why does it not affect the birds who eat the berries? Or, does it affect those birds? What about Euall Gibbons old “preventive” of a tea made from extremely young shoots, to prevent the allergic reaction (don’t try it, kids — last guy I saw who did, I saw in the emergency room as they tried to load him up with steroids quickly enough to keep the reaction from shutting down his lungs).

    I second the datura recommendation.

    And, is it true that plutonium is astonishingly deadly as a poison, as well as extremely radioactive?

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  63. Hal Satz says:

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