In this day and age when science has caught up to criminals and most substances can be readily detected, why go to the trouble to use poison when guns 'n' bullets are available by the gross at your local superstore? While modern-day poisoners are rare, the subject of poison remains fascinating, and John Emsley has captured the true, shall we say, flavor of poison in his new book, The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison. This absorbing volume is equal parts chemistry, history and mystery, but you don't need to be a scientist, historian or murderer to appreciate all three facets.

Emsley opens with a short history of alchemy, that age-old effort to conjure gold from other elements. While the alchemists never succeeded in this quest, they did manage to discover the principles of modern-day chemistry not to mention any number of ways to kill themselves and others. Accordingly, Emsley delves into each of the alchemic poisons (mercury, arsenic, antimony and lead), explaining its chemical properties on the molecular level, then following up with a history of each substance, how it was discovered and its practical uses.

Finally, he gets to the juicy bits murder! The crimes range from carefully thought-out plots to some that strain the limits of credulity. (Some victims were so unaware of what was being done to them that it almost seems they deserved to be poisoned.) After covering the poisons from ancient history, Emsley gives us a look at something a bit newer: thallium, discovered in the mid-19th century, but no less fatal than its older cousins.

While all of these elements have some benefit to mankind, their malevolent uses are best left to the dustbin of history. The Elements of Murder shows us what an interesting history it was. James Neal Webb only read this book for pleasure not research. Honest!

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