I think I know the origin of the old line that “the butler did it.” It’s because the butler probably had the most unfettered access of anyone in the household to all things edible in the home. This meant that he was likely in the best place to deploy one of the most widely used tools of the fictional murderer – poison.
The historical mystery genre is no stranger to the use of poisons, and this is likely rooted in the many real historical examples of their use – from antiquity (the death of Socrates by drinking hemlock, the poisoning of Artaxerxes of Persia by his vizier Bagoas, or the murder of Chinese Emperor Hui of the Jin dynasty) all the way to the 20th century, where it has been used in gruesome mass suicides (Jonestown in 1978) and as a terrorist weapon (Sarin gas in the Tokyo subway).
Of course, the most fertile conditions for the fictional use of poisons are created when there is speculation around certain, shall we say, questionable historical events and characters. Could the mysterious death of Emperor Augustus have been caused by his wife, the Empress Livia (poisoned figs)? Could the Emperor Claudius have met his end at the hands of his wife Agrippina (aconite in mushrooms)? And what about the notorious Lucrezia Borgia, who is alleged to have used her skills as a poisoner to take out several of her families’ enemies (arsenic)?
My own introduction to the use of poisons in historical mysteries was in a rather unusual book by Agatha Christie called Death Comes as the End. It’s set in ancient Egypt and features the use of poisoned wine as a critical plot point. More generally, the list of historical mysteries with poison as a murder weapon is quite long, and includes many of the classics of this genre – Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series, PC Doherty’s Hugh Corbett stories set in medieval England, and Ellis Peters’ Cadfael Chronicles all include at least one story involving poisons.
As with art, architecture, and cuisine, poison is another interesting alleyway that historical mysteries can lead you to – an intriguing diversion which in the real world contributed to the emergence and growth of forensic science. To quote Paracelsus, the Renaissance physician and botanist who is generally considered the father of toxicology: Dosis facit venenum. The dose is the poison – or in other words, anything is poison if consumed in the wrong quantities!
For a more in-depth exploration of poisons:
- Their role in history and mystery fiction is the subject of Poison Mysteries in History, Romance and Crime by C.J.S. Thompson.
- Another work which is delightful reading for its blend of erudition and wry wit is Cooking to Kill: The Poison Cook-book, by Ebenezer Murgatroyd.