November 30 – December 6: “Is poison as a murder method old-fashioned?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5After a holiday weekend, what better time to talk about poison? This week ITW Members Bernard Maestas, J. H. BogránPeter Tonkin and Susan Froetschel discuss whether poison as a murder method is old-fashioned, and if there are some new methods for poisons that evade detection?




podPeter Tonkin published his first novel, Killer, to international acclaim in 1978. Since then he has divided his time between writing and teaching. He has published 37 other novels including the Master of Defence series of Elizabethan murder mysteries (in which a range of poisons play a very active role) and the 30-book Mariner series of action-adventure-thrillers. Since retiring from teaching, he has been preparing a series of thrillers set in Ancient Rome, in which poison is also an important element.


Say That to My Face by Bernard MaestasBernard Maestas lives in paradise. A police officer patrolling the mean streets of Hawaii, he has a background in contract security and military and civilian law enforcement. When not saving the world, one speeding ticket at a time, and not distracted by video games or the internet, he is usually hard at work on his next book.



Allure of Deceit by Susan FroetschelSusan Froetschel is the author of five novels. Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit are set in Afghanistan. Fear of Beauty was a 2014 Mary Higgins Clark Award nominee and recipient of the 2014 Youth Literature Award by the Middle East Outreach Council and the 2014 top mystery award by Military Writers Society of America. Froetschel is managing editor of YaleGlobal Online, a public-service magazine that covers globalization defined as the interconnectedness of our world. She lives in Michigan.


Firefall_Proof2J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist. He ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. His works include novels and short stories in both English and Spanish. His debut novel TREASURE HUNT, which The Celebrity Café hails as an intriguing novel that provides interesting insight of architecture and the life of a fictional thief, has also been selected as the Top Ten in Preditors & Editor’s Reader Poll. FIREFALL, his second novel, was released in 2013 by Rebel ePublishers. Coffee Time Romance calls it “a taut, compelling mystery with a complex, well-drawn main character.” He’s a member of the Short Fiction Writers Guild, Crime Writer’s Association, and the International Thriller Writers. He lives in Honduras with his family and one “Lucky” dog.


Latest posts by ITW (see all)
  1. Not at all. Recently in the real world, the Russian defector, Alexander Litvinenko, was poisoned with radioactive thallium. Russian agents are suspected by British authorities of the murder. My mystery short story that just won a prize features the poisonous monkshood plant.
    An author can have great fun concocting a murder plot with a host of poisons. One of our fellow writers, Dr. D. P. Lyle has written great Forensic guides for us to use.

    1. I agree with you, Bernard. Plenty of fresh new ways to use poison as a device. Of course, you don’t want to be make it too obvious, and for me, a great deal of fun is posing such questions to doctor of scientific-type friends. Oh, the stares I’ve earned in the name of writing! 🙂

    2. Arthur, the first thought that came to my mind, too, was the case with radioactive thallium, and that transcends the old notion that poison is a woman’s method.

  2. Poison is a murder weapon that is personal, easy to employ if the victim is trusting and ready to ingest the substance.

    One new approach is random anger and killings by adding poison to food or medicines on store shelves, the case with the 1982 Tylenol killings in Chicago. A great debut novel by Martin J. Smith, Time Release, explored similar random killings, with Pittsburgh as the setting and another drug. The perpetrator was not found.

    Another new approach is taking advantage of a victim’s allergy to a substance like peanuts. Likewise, several high-profile cases have employed insulin as a weapon, as explained by Jane Elliott of BBC News. She adds that within five years of discovery in 1921, the treatment was used to kill.

    New medicines can transform into weapons – with overdoses or combinations of drugs, including alcohol, or mixing foods with certain drugs: chocolate or Ritalin, statins and grapefruit which can contribute to risks over the long term.

  3. Poison is not out of fashion yet, and just the same as with stealing cars, only the deed has gotten a bit more complicated to achieve. In fact, poison plays an important part in my new novel. Sorry I can’t say any more than that at this stage.

    Author Susan Froetschel mentioned something about poison being used generally by women. Although I don’t agree with that statement, here’s a funny story may actually support her theory.

    My wife has been a fan of those forensic shows about crimes that would have remained unsolved without science’s intervention. One day as I was enjoying a small cap of eggnog, she leans forward with a devilish grin and says, “Did you know that engine coolant can be deadly if ingested? And the person wouldn’t be any wiser, as it tastes rather sweet.” I looked from the glass to her and back, then I gulped, she smiled, and I shrugged it off as joke. Or not. 🙂

    And to close, there’s the joke that’s been making the rounds in every version of social media since the early 1900’s. The latest, or most famous, version involves Winston Churchill and Lady Astor:

    “Mr. Churchill, if you were my husband, I’d poison your tea!”

    To which he replied: “And if you were my wife, I would drink it!”

        1. DJ, Botulism was used in Fear of Beauty, a novel set in Afghanistan, but not for the primary murder. Much thanks for asking.

  4. Poison for the historical thriller writer, however, is a fascinating field. Of course there are the ‘classical’ poisons – hemlock springs to mind as Socrates killed himself by drinking it (in 399 BCE at the insistence of the Athenian authorities for ‘corrupting the youth’ of Athens). Famous/infamous also was Aconite, the ‘Mother in Law’s poison’ used in the Republican and early Imperial Roman Empire, distilled from Wolfsbane (NOT, of course from Monk’s Hood for reasons that should be obvious.) As time passes, characters’ relationships with poisons change. Independently of the theory that the later Caesaes may have slipped into madness and early death because the water in their palaces was delivered through lead pipes. Did the Elizabethans use arsenic to make their faces white (as in my novel The Hound of the Borders?A Midwinter Murder) and then find other more sinister uses for it? Did they learn more than statecraft from the Borgias’ favourite Machiavelli and from Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia themselves? Did Tudor doctors believe that Mercury could cure syphilis (One Head Too Many/A head for Murder)? Did they understand what death-dealing alkaloids Sir Walter Raleigh brought back from the New World – alongside Tobacco? Did he really introduce the first new poison into the Old World when he brought South American natives with their curare-tipped blow-darts? Did anyone recognise the lethal potential of improperly stored and prepared potatoes which can be packed with lethal glycoalkaloids? Or of the ‘Love apple’ tomatoes that followed, and which can be equally deadly? And of course, as the unfortunate musician Johann Schobert discovered when he had dinner on the 28th August1787 with his family and servants, certain types of mushroom look edible but are in fact deadly. Napoleon’s post mortem famously revealed, of course, lengthy ingestion of arsenic – apparently used on the wallpaper of his prison rooms on Saint Helena (a theory challenged in 2008). Even as recently as WWI, the Ministry of Food was reputedly advising keen gardeners to grow rhubarb and eat not only the stems but the leaves – until people started dying of oxalic acid poisoning. No. All through the ages, and in every era of murderous fiction, poison is there in all sorts of places – expected and unexpected. A boon to the author and a bane to his or her characters.

  5. Poisons remain a very effective killing tool for the mystery/thriller writer. Best of all, it’s quiet and can take effect after the killer has left the scene. No explosion, no guns blasting, no car crashing at high speed. Just a silent (usually) death of “the enemy.”

    In my mystery Killer Kitchens I use poison as an instrument of retaliation that works well given the book’s setting. For research I purchased a book on various poisons, their typical results and whether or not they were traceable in the body. I kept it on my bedside table for some light reading until my husband spotting it one day wondered what my future plans for him were. I told him not to worry, but he still loves telling that story.

  6. A bit late to the party, but here I am! (Bit of a side note and shameless plug but I’ve been busy promoting my third INTERNET TOUGH GUYS novel, “You Think This is a Game?” this week!)

    I do love these discussions and this week’s topic is no exception. First off, I really liked J.H. Bogran’s post, first comparing it to auto theft. Not to get off topic but my professional experience with stolen cars certainly lines up with this. It is, indeed, alive and well, despite the fact that it is almost impossible to drive a stolen car for any period of time. Like that, poison is something that will never go away. In the “real world”, I haven’t come across it very often (murder is pretty simple; the spouse or the rival gang member did it and none of them think that far ahead) but that doesn’t mean it’s not out there. In fact, if done right, no one should ever know that it’s happened.

    Terrorism is the buzz word these days and a lot of thrillers are, obviously, going to have to revolve around that. While poison wouldn’t seem to lend itself to that, there was actually a threat many years ago (from Al Qaeda — if anyone remembers them!) to disperse ricin into salad bars and buffets across the United States. By stretching the definition of “poison” a bit, one could also include the Tokyo subway attack. So, again, even in this era, poison still looms, menacingly.

    I confess, I haven’t used poison in any of my published “Internet Tough Guys” novels as the combat-oriented action scenes haven’t lent themselves to it. Just this topic, however, has started the gears turning in my mind of all the possibilities for novels to come!

    1. Thank you, Bernard.
      As a matter of fact,stolen cars is a huge plot point in Firefall, and I even touch base with the GPS tracking technology in most cars today. 🙂

  7. There is plant in my country of Honduras that is very popular with wives poisoning their husbands. I couldn’t find a proper translation for it, but the word in Spansih is “Camotillo”.
    I’ve never seen it, nor eaten it–hopefully–but I’ve heard it is a small round fruit, like a cherry or other berry, sweet but deadly.

MATCH UP: In stores now!


ThrillerFest XVIII: Register Today!

One of the most successful anthologies in the history of publishing!