The dark allure of poisoning, both in fact and fiction, has added intrigue to my life for many years. From Hamlet to A Series of Unfortunate Events, Agatha Christie to PD James. So many buzz words to tantalise me, to frighten me. To name just a few of my favourites: cyanide, strychnine, arsenic, ricin, Devil’s Breath, Deadly Nightshade…
My fascination with poison began in the early eighties when I worked at the National Poison’s Unit. Amanda Robson. Part of a team of information officers, specially trained to provide information to doctors on the treatment of poisoning. Occasionally, rogue members of the public managed to infiltrate our phone lines, and ask how much of a certain drug they needed to kill themselves!
In this sad situation, ignoring their request, we tried to persuade them to contact the Samaritans. Chilling enough. But by far the saddest cases were the paracetamol overdoses. Asymptomatic until twenty-four hours after a paracetamol overdose, by the time of hospitalisation many patients no longer want to die. But it’s too late to save them. A slow death through liver failure invariably follows. Another stand out catastrophe: poisonous mushrooms. Even experts have trouble identifying which mushrooms are safe.
Ask Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer. He inadvertently poisoned himself and his whole family after treating them to some wild mushrooms he had picked. He served them up fried in butter with parsley, and almost killed them all.
Last but by no means least, another terror, scopolamine or Devil’s Breath. Found in the Borrachero tree of Columbia. Odourless. Tasteless. Easy to slip in a drink, causing memory loss and incapacity to think. The crimes it has been associated with are notorious. If you go to a bar in Columbia keep your eye on your drink. In low doses scopolamine is used to treat sea –sickness. I first came across its danger sailing across the Atlantic on a clipper ship, when I used a slow-release patch. I drank alcohol at dinner to accompany it. To my horror, the next morning I had no recollection of the evening after ten o’clock.
So what’s your poison? Alcohol and scopolamine? Paracetamol? Mushrooms? Take your pick.