Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Just finished reading a popular science book about poisons--and it brought home to me how important it is for writers to read books outside their normal areas of interest. I'm not sure this book qualifies for me since I write mysteries and have long held an interest in forensics, but anyway, I enjoyed it immensely. 

The book was called:  "Molecules of Murder" and was classed as a popular science book.  I have to say, it was very popular in my household.  My biologist husband stole it from me the minute it came in the door. I finally had to fight him for it.  When I got my hands on it, it proved worth the trouble. So worth it that I'm searching out other books by the author: John Emsley.

 Emsley has a warm, chatty style of writing and an approach that makes even chemistry—which can often be very dull—fascinating. And as with so many British writers, he has a understated humor that hits the mark, e.g. "…she poisoned her father with a white powder sent by her lover, Lieutenant William Cranstoun, who assured her it would end her father's objection to their marriage. It did—it killed him."

 You have to love a science book written like that. Emsley is popular, and no wonder. I wish some U.S. scientists would realize you don't have to be dull and humorless to write about science. In fact, I believe that the cold, somber style of most science papers written in the U.S. is directly responsible for the decline in science students. It was certainly one factor that killed my career in the sciences. That and being told that science papers were not supposed to be funny. Or amusing.

 I guess only deadly dull papers can be taken seriously.

 Anyway, I'd rather read a British science article any day, since most of them have a much more accessible, warmer style and wry humor even while covering exactly the same subject with the same accuracy.

 Americans take themselves way, way too seriously.  Science should be fun, not BORING, and so should the articles (in so far as it is possible).  I'm not suggesting they be filled with a joke a minute, I'm just suggesting that we need to take ourselves a little less seriously and one or two minor, wry comments doesn't mean the information in the paper is any less accurate or real.

 But I digress.

 The point is, if you are a writer, expanding your horizons to other fields of endeavor can only make you a better writer.  If you are at all interested in science or the application of chemistry to forensics, check out that book (and note--I don't know Emsley and never heard of him before, and he's not paying me to write this--although if he reads it--any small gift he sees fit to send me would be much appreciated.)

 "Molecules of Murder" is therefore highly recommended, particularly for anyone with the following interests:



Students of Chemistry/Forensics

Folks interested in or involved in Forensics


Law Enforcement (I particularly think folks involved in law enforcement would love this book to get a better handle on, or at least introduction to, the chemistry of poison in a very accessible way.)

 Nitty-Gritty Review

For those who want a little more info...I'd preface the following with the background info that I have always loved science and forensics, so keep that in mind.  But if you love shows like CSI, you may find this book fascinating. "Molecules of Murder" actually gives you the science behind the poisons. In the introduction, Emsley presents you with a brief look at the history of chemical analysis and its application in solving murders throughout history.

 The good news for Modern Society is that it appears poisoning's "heyday" is pretty much over. It's on the decline as a favorite murder weapon, and that's excellent news if you're in the law enforcement line.

 The book is divided up into chapters relating to different poisons, e.g. Chapter 5 "Adrenaline and the Near-Perfect Murders of Kristen Gilbert". The poisons discussed include: Ricin, Hyoscine, Atropine, Diamorphine, Adrenaline, Chloroform, Carbon Monoxide, Cynanide, Paraquat, and Polonium.

 In each chapter, there is a brief introduction of a historical (or recent) case of the use of a poison, followed by these sections: toxicology and chemistry; historical uses; production and application; the effects of poisoning; detection and identification; positive factors; examples of poison attacks; and then a specific case where the poison was used in murder.

 While that may sound dry and perhaps daunting, it is incredibly accessible because Emsley makes heavy use of anecdotes and examples from history, recent events and even literature. The broad range of examples is part of what makes this book so entertaining. For Rican, he goes into the details of the murder of Soviet dissident George Markov in 1978. The USSR Secret Service agent actually used an umbrella to deliver the poison to Markov and frankly, for the fascinating details, read the book. It's nothing short of unbelievable and would make a great fiction story although I doubt any editor would find it believable enough to buy it.

 Part of the interest of "Molecules of Murder" is th heavy use of short anecdotes. The sections are actually written almost as murder mysteries like Columbo—where you may know who the killer is, but the intrigue comes from how he or she was exposed and the poison identified.

 I learned so much from this book and was completely enthralled.


And I totally plan to use it when writing my next murder mystery.


Sweet Dreams!

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