From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Emsley (Vanity, Vitality, and Virility: The Science Behind the Products You Love to Buy
) hits a bull's eye in this fascinating, wonderfully readable forensic history of five deadly chemicals (mercury, arsenic, antimony, lead and thallium) and their starring role in that most intoxicating drama of pure evil: murder. A deeply knowledgeable chemist (he's science writer in residence at Cambridge University) with a gift for making accessible the dry and bewilderingly arcane, Emsley's at his best in case studies of infamous poisoners and their victims. During the reign of James I of England, for instance, the poet Thomas Overbury, having fallen out of royal favor, was administered three fatal doses of mercury, only to survive. For his stubbornness he was administered a fourth dose—by enema—and finally succumbed. Mary Bateman, the "Yorkshire Witch," was equally unlucky. Convicted in 1809 of poisoning a client, Mary was hanged and her corpse skinned so pieces could be sold as charms. Not all the incidents are in the past: Emsley also discusses contemporary environmental poisoning from mercury and Saddam Hussein's use of thallium sulfate on his enemies. Fanatical devotees of the macabre might thumb past sections devoted to less sensational history. But the general reader will not be disappointed: each of these deadly toxins was at one time or another promoted for its unique health or beauty benefits. 15 b&w illus. (June)
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Readers seduced by this book's provocative title into expecting a spicy catalog of murder and mayhem may be a bit disappointed by its somewhat dry and technical tone. The author, a veteran science writer, certainly knows his stuff, but he may have slightly overestimated his audience's tolerance for discussions of chemical formulas. Still, for the patient reader, there is a wealth of intriguing information here. Emsley traces the evolution of alchemy and explains the central role that the quest to turn metal into gold plays in the history of poison, pausing along the way to note that Isaac Newton's obsession with alchemy may have contributed to his madness. Later chapters discuss the history, uses, and murderous abuses of mercury, arsenic, antimony, lead, and thallium. Yes, it's technical, but just keep plodding: it's not all formulas. Emsley retells enough juicy and lurid (and sometimes famous) stories of murder by poison to enthrall both true-crime fans and budding mystery writers. David PittCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved