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Customer reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars
The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison
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on 25 July 2017
Detailed and interesting study of famous poisoners in history.
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on 16 September 2013
A highly enjoyable and vividly written, at the same time mewticulously researched text. An excellent background text for courses in "metals in medicine and toxic metals" and other courses in the chemistry of metals in biological systems. The front cover is unfortunately a complete flop and should be replaced by something serious the sooner the better..
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on 7 May 2015
An excellent look at different metallic poisons,which also has some interesting insights into historical situations and people.
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on 5 July 2015
As a chemistry teacher I enjoyed reading this book a couple of years ago. Now one of my colleagues stopped working and I found this book the ideal gift for him.
Just with a little warning: Use it, but think deeply before you act!!
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on 4 December 2013
This book is a strange mixture of minutely detailed records of famous murders and physical and chemical properties of toxic elements and their antidotes. Inevitably those who are interested in the one will be bored by the other, but how else would you write it? Undeniably it's all there, and the message is clear: with today's meticulous crime-scene examinations and autopsy expertise, don't try it. Apparently there's an easy antidote to arsenic, so today Emma Bovary should have been saved, and what then?
One person found this helpful
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on 3 September 2006
This book was promising. My advice would be to read the introduction which is well written and interesting and ignore the rest of it. Everything that followed the introduction was of such a poor quality that I could not believe the author of the introduction to be the same as for the main body of the book. For reasons best known to the author there were digressions into vitriolic judgements on the sexual proclivities of King Charles and some quite unsustainable remarks about Isaac Newton. What a shame! I was really looking forward to this book, and whereas the introduction had some very nicely written paragraphs the main body of the book was in ungainly prose. I didn't read much beyond the third chapter -perhaps it improved.
For something much more worthwhile read Poisons: From Hemlock to Botox and the Killer Bean of Calabar by Peter Macinnins.
4 people found this helpful
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on 9 October 2012
This book was simply amazing, really interesting, with science anyone can understand. The great stories, mean this book reads like a fiction.
One person found this helpful
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on 6 March 2011
I was disappointed with this book and found that it tended to drag - you know when you really want a book to just end. Parts of the book were fascinating and extremely interesting - but these were far and few between.
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on 18 June 2010
I purchased this book back in April of 2006 and was extremely disappointed when I received it, so much so that I assigned it to the box of rarely used books.

I had the misfortune to need to check a reference so I retrieved it from its resting place and discovered three things:

Firstly, the reference (as quoted) was correct;

Secondly, the information held in the text quoted was inaccurate; and

Thirdly, my opinion of the book has not changed with the passage of time.

It is such a shame for the author, John Emsley (whose expertise is with the element phosphorus), that he decided to stray into the realm of these other elements - mercury, lead, arsenic, thallium and antimony - as he seems to have lost his scientific edge.

Some of the claims for the accidental/murderous effects are dubious or completely incorrect and many of the "cases" cited by Mr Emsley are either too brief, badly researched or in some cases just outright wrong. This was a shock as Mr Emsley's work is usually so good.

From reading the introduction to the book I can see that Mr Emsley had big plans for this book. The real disappointment is that the follow through was so poor - much less than the standard that Mr Emsley is usually noted for. I'd love to know what went wrong to spoil the normal quality of Mr Emsley's work - maybe it was simply he stretched himself too far from his normal specialism, or perhaps the publishers wanted the book too quickly and the sources and accuracy could not be checked - whatever it was it has tarnished my opinion of this author.

The book has now been returned to its place in the rarely used box and I can't see it coming out again.
5 people found this helpful
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on 19 November 2017
This is not your run of the mill true crime book, it’s a good deal more – with scientific analysis of the poisonous elements and interesting chapters on other uses. Each element only has one or two murder cases discussed in detail, and the rest comprises of more scientific information, such as a particular element’s place in the natural world, whether we need it to survive and medical or industrial uses. There are cases discussed dealing with accidental imbibing, including historical hypotheses (such as Napeoleon’s arsenic-laced wallpaper, Roman emperors and lead poisoning, and unsolved cases where poisons may have been involved. Some of these deaths turned the course of history (such as the mental illness and infertility of many of the Roman leaders, the madness of King George III, and the death of Bonaparte.

It’s interesting to trace the history of such elements, some of which were (or are) used in a medical capacity. One such example is Fowlers Solution – a medicinal tonic and treat-all which was arsenic-based; overdoses were a reality and adding a little extra to the mix was not unheard of. This concoction was responsible for more than one end – a helping hand was given or self-inflicted. James Maybrick (who was at one point considered a candidate for Jack the Ripper), was poisoned with arsenic. He was, by many accounts a self-dosing hypochondriac and was using Fowlers Solution, amongst other ‘medicenes’. His wife, Florence, was tried for his murder (after distilling arsenic from flypapers – also a Victorian practice to produce a face wash). Florence had an affair (or a couple) and was mostly tried on this behaviour, proving the hypocrisy of the time as James had a mistress and five illegitimate kids. Did she do it? The jury thought so but many advocates of her cause say she was innocent and the poison was taken by James himself, or planted by family members who didn’t like her. My point is – there were legitimate uses for poisons in the right quantities.

The rising technology and scientific method in the 19th century led to arsenic, antimony and other poisons being more easily traceable. Many of the symptoms of the poisoning would resemble other illness, particularly gastrointestinal disorders, dysentery etc. at a time when food hygiene and personal hygiene were rather lacking.

Mercury based medicine came to be used in the treatment of syphilis, but mercury and mercury vapour are toxic. In many cases the mercury would kill the patient if the syphilis didn’t. Mercury was often seen as a wonder element; it was even thought to prolong life in China and Tibet, and the ancient Egyptians used balms and tonics made from mercury compounds, and the Romans used mercury cosmetics.

This unusual element was at one time thought to be First Matter, from which all other metals derived, and alchemists used it (and were poisoned by it) in the search for transmutation.

Its unusual properties gave an almost mythic status but this dangerous metal caused all sorts of unpleasantness. Mercury usages in industry include use in batteries, dentistry, paper and paint manufacturing, and gold and silver mining. Artists used vermillion paint, which is made from cinnabar (a mercury compound) and it’s thought many of Van Gogh’s mental health illnesses could be linked to mercury poisoning from his paints.

Thallium was used in medicine as a ringworm treatment – one of the effects is hair loss so a patient would be given thallium so any ringworm or other parasites could be treated. It was the standard use for hair removal for 50 years. Thallium is used to make lenses, in smelting, and insecticides. There have been ancient and modern cases of it being used for evil. For me the most interesting case example was the Graham Young case, as the man in question came from a town not far from where I grew up (Bovingdon). I’m familiar with the case from previous books but this

Overall as a book on poisons and murder this is certainly one of the better offerings. The author clearly has done a good deal of research, and chosen suitable but not always common cases to review. The scientific side of the poisons is rarely put forward in such books. Perhaps not a book for the casual reader, as some knowledge of chemistry would be a help.

Recommended for true-crime buffs, historians, and those who enjoy the science of crime.

5 stars.
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