The Elements of Murder

The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison - John Emsley

He was 32-years-old but had gone grey, which he jokingly said was due to quicksilver. Although there is no connection between the two, there is a link between the body burden of several metals and their level in hair. Mercury, lead, arsenic, and antimony, are particularly attracted to the sulphur atoms in the keratin of hair and so it is possible by the analysis of a strand of hair to show whether that person had been exposed to a large dose of these toxic metals. Newton’s alchemical experiments appear to have reached a climax in the summer of 1693 when he wrote an account that is a combination of bizarre alchemical symbols and comments and is known as the Praxis [Doings] and this showed how unbalanced he had become. Isaac Newton was well known for being temperamental. Criticism of his work aroused in him an abnormal hatred of a rival and his feuds with other eminent scientists of the day such as Robert Hooke and Gottfried Leibniz were more emotional than rational. At times, Newton withdrew into virtual isolation and in 1693, when he was 50-years-old, his behaviour became so abnormal that his sanity was even questioned.

The Elements of Murder was fun, but it was a book with shortcomings. I don't like to start out pointing at the issues with a book but bear with me:


1. The book does not cover that many elements. In fact, only five (all of them metals) get serious page time: Mercury, Lead, Antimony, Arsenic, and Thallium. There is a section at the end of the book that covers some more elements, but most of these entries do not even extend beyond a single paragraph.


2. Arsenic, Thallium, and Antimony are covered in other books (such as the fabulous A is for Arsenic), which made much of the information in this books seem like old news. 


3. Some of the writing is ... dubious. There is something wrong with the flow of the narrative. I can't put my finger on what it was, but I had to read some paragraphs several times to understand what the author was talking about. There were also a couple of paragraphs where the author alluded to something but then suddenly dropped the thought in what seemed mid-sentence and then moved on to something new. 


Yes, this book could have done with better editing. is why I still enjoyed the book:


The introduction about the history of alchemy and that first chapter on mercury were fabulous!


Emsley explains the properties and history of mercury, its uses, and its impact on the environment. He also goes to describe famous people who experimented with it, and how mercury has been responsible for various deaths. This part was really interesting and packed full of history and hard science. I loved it. 


However, in parts, it seemed like the author wanted to write a book about mercury only, and then felt compelled to add more chapters. 


I would still recommend the book on the chapter about mercury alone, but I do recommend to find it in a library.