Book Review

A Taste for Poison by Neil Bradbury

Publisher: Harper North

As any reader of murder mysteries can tell you, poison is one of the most enduring – and popular – weapons of choice for a scheming murderer. It can be slipped into a drink, smeared onto the tip of an arrow or the handle of a door, even filtered through the air we breathe. But how exactly do these poisons work to break our bodies down, and what can we learn from the damage they inflict?

In a fascinating blend of popular science, medical history, and narrative crime nonfiction, Dr Neil Bradbury explores this most morbidly captivating method of murder from a cellular level. Alongside real-life accounts of murderers and their crimes – some notorious, some forgotten, some still unsolved – are the equally compelling stories of the poisons involved: eleven molecules of death that work their way through the human body and, paradoxically, illuminate the way in which our bodies function.

Drawn from historical records and current news headlines, A Taste for Poison weaves together the fascinating tales of spurned lovers, shady scientists, medical professionals, and political assassins, showing how the precise systems of the body can be impaired to lethal effect through the use of poison. From the deadly origins of the gin & tonic cocktail to the arsenic-laced wallpaper in Napoleon’s bedroom, A Taste for Poison leads readers on a fascinating tour of the intricate, complex systems that keep us alive – or don’t.


A Taste for Poison is a brilliant book and one that will appeal to readers for different reasons.  I’m a lover of crime fiction and for me the attraction was to learn more about some of the poisons that I’ve come across in various works of fiction, Agatha Christie in particular being fond of dispatching of her characters in this manner.  For others, the appeal may be more scientific as Bradbury looks not only at these eleven poisons and the dosage at which they become lethal – some are, in smaller quantities, quite beneficial to us – but also the impact that they have on the human body i.e. what exactly they do they do that causes death.  The third element is a true crime aspect.  For each poison, Bradbury shares one or more cases in which these poisons have been used in real life cases.  It may sound as though there’s a lot going on, and yet it works to give the reader the insight into these poisons and their effects whilst providing a balance between the scientific and criminal elements to make this a thoroughly engaging read.

Many of the poisons and toxins – there is a distinction – are quite well known and include some crime fiction favourites such as arsenic and cyanide.  Others are less well known.  There’s ricin, which I’ve heard of thanks to Breaking Bad as well as substances such as aconite that I’ve not come across previously.  There are also substances such as digoxin and insulin which have medicinal benefits in the right quantities, and yet can cause great harm if a larger dose is administered.  With each substance, Bradbury looks at where it comes from, it’s uses – historical and current – as well as its effect on the human body and the signs to look out for in the case of a suspected poisoning – knowledge that I hope I never need.  The science is explained is a straightforward manner, making A Taste for Poison accessible to those who don’t have scientific or medical backgrounds. 

The exploration of the crimes that these poisons have been used in really brings the book to life.  For each poison we see a case in which it was used, exploring the motives of the killer, how they were caught (if indeed they were), and how the poison was identified – something that is much easier today than it was 150 years ago where such a death might have been put down to natural causes.  I did find it a little surprising that there were some recent examples, including one case that I remember hearing about in the news although Shipman is conspicuous in his absence. Going in, I did wonder if the approach might become repetitive or formulaic, but that’s not the case at all. The cases are so varied, covering different time periods, methods, and motives and this makes each chapter feel new and different to the last.

A Taste for Poison is a fascinating read and one that I found myself engrossed in – something that doesn’t happen often with non-fiction.  It’s one that I highly recommend for those with an interest in the science behind these poisons as well as for those whose interest lies more with the true-crime element, or who just want to learn more about the subtler weapons one comes across in works of crime fiction. 

A Taste for Poison is published by Harper North and is available now in hardback, digital, and audio formats.

5 comments

  1. I listened to this one and I had a great time with it. The digitalis purpurea in my garden is in full bloom and it continually reminds me of A Taste for Poison 😄 Fab review, Jo!

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