Category Archives: research

My Library: A is For Arsenic by Kathryn Harkup

Cheering, flaily-hands thanks to Sally Koetsveld, who gave me A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie as a gift two Christmases ago, before I went to Lorne for a break.

Kathryn Harkup is herself a chemist, as well as a writer and avid reader of Christie. This makes her the perfect choice to write about the kinds of poisons Christie used in her stories from the combined storytelling and scientific points of view.

Some of the books I get for research I dip in and out of. Some, like this one, I read cover to cover. A is for Arsenic was perfect reading for a beachside holiday. Well. If you’re me.

It’s not an A-Z, but 14 letters of the alphabet are covered, describing the poisons most commonly used by Christie in her stories. Agatha Christie’s background as a dispenser in 1917 and beyond meant she was very familiar with several common poisons and their effects.

Harkup examines the stories in which they’re used (usually mostly spoiler-free or with clear warning before the spoilering commences). She talks about each poisons origins, whether they have antidotes in both the historical and contemporary contexts, how right Christie got the symptoms in the story and exactly how these poisons work in the body to kill the victim. The latter is pretty technical, but also very clearly laid out. 

When you write both Victorian-era and contemporary crime and horror, a book like this is a superb helpmeet. With it, I can determine, for example,  how much either Dr Watson’s medical background, or Holmes’s as a chemist, will inform their responses and deductions, how easily a poison might be obtained, and how long it might take someone to expire (or be saved!).

A is for Arsenic is entertaining reading on its own, but as a tool for the writer, it promises to be both a useful reference work and a probable source of inspiration!

A Writer’s Library

Every writer has a reference library of some kind. I’d like to introduce you to mine!

The physical part of it at least. I also have a collection of ebooks and PDFs, including the 1894 Baedeker’s guide to London and its Environs and copies of The Strand Magazine from 1891.  I also have newspaper clippings and saved web pages relating to crimes, science and all manner of strangeness which I think I’ll need for upcoming projects.

My reference library is stuffed full – I will soon have to start balancing new books on top!

My two shelves of reference books are packed to bursting with books about forensics, London, music, queer history, 19th century medicine and medieval society. Not all of the related books have been written yet, but some research on Victorian-era underwear and sailing ships was used in writing The Adventure of the Colonial Boy. and the medieval books were used to write the origin story for Kitty and Cadaver – Hoorfrost – which is in my upcoming short story collection Scar Tissue and Other Stories.

The top shelf is home to much history and science of forensics (mainly for use in my Sherlock Holmes stories so I get the science correct for the era) and books about Victorian London. I have several on the history of queer London of the era and trans history, in part for canon-era Holmes♥Watson stories and partly for something I’m planning set in 1890s Melbourne.

The music books are used for the Duo Ex Machina series and for Kitty and Cadaver. The British folklore will be used in the as yet unwritten sequel to Kitty and Cadaver, which I’ll get to eventually.

In the centre of the bottom shelf are the notebooks full of research I’ve conducted in the British Library: they contain notes about medieval London, pages and pages on Frost Fairs, Victorian-era clothing and culture; many pages about ravens, and the history of the London Underground.

For my Melbourne-based stories, the Melway is invaluable. (I use Google Maps for London locales when I’m not actually in London – I used both methods for Ravenfall. I really should get a London A-Z.) I’ll use The Australian Hostess Cookbook in the third Gary and Lissa book (also on the cards in due course, after The Opposite of Life is reissued by Clan Destine Press). I’ve also been learning more about 1890s Melbourne, but I don’t expect to get to that project until at least next year.

These are two very tiny books that my mum had in her shelves of Indigenous place names and words. I’m not sure yet when or how I’ll use them, but they’re there when I need them.

I’m often finding new books to add – I’ve picked up several new ones on bees and British wildlife for a project I’m looking at later this year. Among the books I’ve collected over the last year are The Butchering Art , about the work of Joseph Lister (yes, Listerine is named for him) who pioneered antiseptics in 19th century surgery. The fictional Dr Watson would have graduated from medical school at about the time Lister’s ideas were actually being accepted and taught.

You can also see jammed among the titles three wonderful secondhand bookstore finds: The Scientist would definitely be a book in my vampire Gary Hooper’s library. A Girl at Government House states it’s the diaries of a young girl in service in Australia in the 1880s and 90s, and Two Years Before the Mast is an account of a man’s life at sea in the mid 19th century, so it’ll be another layer of primary-document information to help make my Victorian era fiction if not accurate then at least less inaccurate.

Why yes, I do have rather a lot of potential projects in my future. And this doesn’t count the several I haven’t actually mentioned yet!

Feel free to ask me about any of the books you can see in those shelves. I aim to write about a few more of them as I use them (and discover if they will serve their purpose well enough!)