John Nicholson reviews this diabolical text

Molecules of murder
John Emsley
Cambridge: RSC 2008 2008 | Pp276 | £14.95 | ISBN 978 0 85 404965 3
Reviewed by John Nicholson

Molecules of murder cover

John Emsley, one of the foremost writers on chemistry, generally extols the virtues of the subject. However, his latest book is different, dealing with poisons and the activity of criminal poisoners.

The book is divided into two parts, From medicine to murder and So simple, so useful, so deadly, each of which contains five chapters. The first part covers substances whose principal function is medicinal - ricin, hyoscine, atropine, diamorphine and adrenaline - and includes accounts of the famous cases of Dr Crippen and Dr Harold Shipman. Part two covers other chemicals, including chloroform, carbon monoxide, cyanide, paraquat and polonium, bringing us right up to date with an account of the murder of the Russian dissident and writer Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. 

The accounts are superbly written, with appropriate amounts of chemistry expertly blended with gripping accounts of criminal acts. Occasionally, I did find myself wondering whether Emsley was right - could Crippen really have shot his wife, and therefore have to dispose of the body, rather than pass her death off as a result of natural causes? And was the murder of Edwin Bartlett by the beautiful Adelaide Bartlett really so straightforward? After all, at the time of Adelaide Bartlett's 'not guilty' verdict, Sir James Paget of St Bartholomew's Hospital remarked, '...she should tell us, in the interest of science, how she did it'.  

But these are not major criticisms. Overall, I found this book fascinating, and a brilliant mixture of chemistry and crime. The writing is excellent, the research thorough and the resulting book outstanding.