Neil Bradbury’s new book, A Taste for Poison: Eleven Deadly Molecules and the Killers Who Used Them, is a fascinating and fresh take on true crime narrative forms. Rather than just recount the stories of killers who murder by poisoning, Bradbury shifts the focus to the substances themselves.
Across eleven sections, accompanied by a helpful appendix and bibliography, Bradbury unpacks the history of various poisonous and deadly substances as well as their illegal and legal uses throughout history. Bradbury acknowledges that poison has been the weapon of choice for many killers for centuries, and there are many harrowing tales of systematic or sudden deaths by poisoning that one can draw on to prove their point. However, Bradbury encourages us in this text to slow down and consider the nuances between poisons, how they work to destroy the body, their effectiveness in doing so, and even unpacks their molecular breakdown in an accessible and engaging way. Bradbury’s text is a blend of science, true crime, and medical history.
Perhaps what is most intriguing about this book is its refreshing take on true crime. When I began reading, I expected yet another anthology of true crime stories, this time with a focus on poisoners. What I got instead was an interesting an educational book full of the context that allows these substances to work. In his introduction, Bradbury contextualizes his text by breaking down some of the fundaments in the chemistry behind these positions, such as the difference between a toxin and a poison, the various methods of ingestion and their consequences, and how different poisons are derived. As he writes
“This book is not a catalogue of poisoners and their victims, but rather explores the nature of poisons and how they affect the body at the molecular, cellular, and physiological levels. Each poison kills in its own unique way, and the varied symptoms experienced by the victims often give clues as to the nature of the poison used against them. In a few instances such knowledge has led to appropriate treatment and full recovery. In other cases knowledge of the poison is not a therapeutic benefit, because there is simply no antidote.”
In each chapter, organized with helpful subheadings, Bradbury discusses what each poison is made of, how it kills, how it is commonly used, how it was discovered, and, of course, how it has been used to kill. This structure places the emphasis on the substance itself rather than the crimes it has been used for and provides some important context in relation to how and why people might choose to use these to kill. Some of my favourite chapters included the Arsenic, Cyanide, and Strychnine sections.
Beyond the interesting and original structure, Bradbury’s text will appeal to true crime readers because the stories he recounts are little-known crimes and they often oscillate between historical and modern examples. Tales from the Victorian period, the cold war, and even the 2010s are spread across Bradbury’s text. There are many stories of dangerous doctors and nurses, poisoned cold war secret agents, and more. Bradbury’s discussion of the poisons got me invested in the history of the substance itself, which made the true crime portions of the book much more informative and contextually relevant.
Much more than a simple anthology of poisoner stories, Bradbury’s book is a truly original take on true crime, popular science, and medical history. I highly recommend!
Please add A Taste for Poison to your Goodreads shelf.
About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.
A digital copy of this book was graciously provided to True Crime Index from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.