The Elements of Murder

The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison is a fascinating book, discussing the most dangerous metallic elements: mercury, arsenic, antimony, lead, and thallium. Each element has a section of the book to itself. For each John Emsley describes the element, its most common chemical forms, its prevalence in nature, and its environmental impact in the absence of human production. Then, for each, he describes its human uses—and the frequently toxic effects of its use in industry and medicine. It turns out that the deaths and illnesses of many notable people can be traced to inadvertent exposure to compounds of one or another of these elements. Each element is also discussed in terms of its contemporary environmental impact. As one might expect, lead, the most used of these substances, still heads the list as the most dangerous to human and animal life.

Emsley then recounts notable cases of each element's use in deliberate poisonings. Most of the poisoners who were caught and tried killed or attempted to kill more than one person—in one case nearly thirty. This penchant for multiple murders undid quite a few poisoners, but it makes one wonder how many poisoners of single individuals may have gotten away with it because a pattern of deaths did not emerge. Of course, as medicine and chemistry have progressed it has become much more difficult to poison someone undetectably, although quite a few of the cases cited by Emsley are nearly contemporary.

A closing chapter briefly discusses a few of the less common elements and their impact on human life. Barium, cadmium, sodium, chrome, and a few others are covered here. An excellent glossary defines many of the terms and measurements which are used throughout the book.

The Elements of Murder is unusual and interesting because it contains medicine, chemistry, history, and pulp fiction all between the same two covers.