Taxine – Fruit of the Yew

Anyone looking at my recent Google search history, would assume I’m about to do something very, very bad. They would be advising my husband to inspect his coffee before drinking it and cautioning him not to eat anything I’ve cooked. (Not that he would anyway. Cooking is not my forte).

My search history is full of poisons. Arsenic, antimony, strychnine. You name it, I’ve considered it as a means to dispatch my victims. Writing a murder mystery requires a lot of research to find a credible method of poisoning and one that would have been easy to procure in Victorian times.

In the end, it had to be taxine – it’s qualities were just right for The Fressingfield Witch. Taxine is an alkaloid compound, handily present in the yew tree. Most parts of the yew are poisonous (except for the fleshy red seed covering). The seeds are particularly high in taxine. Dried seeds and leaves retain their ability to poison for several months.

The body absorbs taxine quickly and in extreme cases, death can occur before any other symptoms are seen. Usefully, a victim can recover especially if given an emetic in the earliest stages, thus giving the author a nice degree of flexibility.

Using taxine puts me in good company with other writers, notably William Shakespeare and Agatha Christie. Shakespeare added yew to the witch’s cauldron in Macbeth and Christie poisoned Mr Fortescue with taxine in ‘A Pocket Full of Rye.’

It’s surprisingly under-used in books, all things considered. Writers tend to favour arsenic as it was so easily available in Victorian times. It was also a popular choice for real murderers. Mary Ann Cotton, Florence Maybrick and Madeleine Smith all used arsenic to kill. In fact, Suffolk murderess Mary Cage used it and it was the newspaper account of her trial that provided the inspiration for Vote for Murder. I dabbled with antimony poisoning in that one too.

Anyway, a relevant excerpt from The Fressingfield Witch:

“The fruit of the yew has long been my friend. I harvest it myself, then dry it and store it safely away, always wearing gloves. It is a powerful toxin. My mother taught me not to take risks.”

 

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English Murder Mysteries

Agatha ChristieChecking through my Goodreads books yesterday, I realised how deeply entrenched my book tastes have become.  Everything I enjoy most is set in England and involves a good old-fashioned murder, preferably not too graphic.  Not surprising really since I was bought up on a diet of Agatha Christie & P G Wodehouse.

This intransigent reading habit was one of several reasons I joined a book club.  I thought it would be good to expose myself to other genres.  In the last six months I have read A history of Lonliness, The Cellist of Sarajevo, Rebecca, The Life of a Banana, Tuesdays with Morrie and The Boy that Never was.  And a depressing bunch of books they are, let me tell you.  Rebecca is the shining star amongst them (although I enjoyed The Cellist of Sarajevo).  But if there’s one thing I have learned from the book club experience, it’s that I like what I like.  It may not be highbrow literature, it’s not Booker prize winning stuff, but the books I love have a beginning, a middle and an end – and above all else, they have a plot!

So it’s English murder mysteries all the way for me, particularly anything with a family history or genealogical twist.  My top six of all time, in no particular order, are:

Agatha Christie – Crooked House

Robert Goddard – Past Caring

Val McDermid – The Wire in the Blood

Susan Hill – The Various Haunts of Men

James Ruddick – Death at the Priory

Dan Waddell – The Blood Detective

I’m sure there are many deserving English murder mysteries that should be on the list.  There are several up and coming genealogy writers (Nathan Dylan Goodwin springs to mind) and some debut authors (Paula Hawkins – The Girl on the Train) who have captured my attention.  Who are the best all time English murder mystery writers?  Your suggestions would be appreciated.