When I was being interviewed on a radio show a couple of months ago, the host asked me about patterns in my work. At the time, the only one that came to mind was revenge, which plays a starring role in each of my novels. I wasn’t aware of other patterns until I started putting together my short story collection, The Black Widow Club. It has made me see my work in a new light. The truth is, I like to poison people.
In crime fiction, poison is often considered a “cozy” way to dispatch a person, given that the murderer doesn’t need to confront his or her victim with a knife, gun, or other weapon. That used to be how I looked at poisonings. Growing up, I was fascinated by Agatha Christie’s novels, in which poison often plays a prominent role. Alfred Hitchcock used it to wonderful effect in his films — think of Ingrid Bergman being poisoned by her Nazi husband in Notorious, or even of Joan Fontaine wondering if her husband had it in for her in Suspicion. Other films, like Arsenic and Old Lace, represented poisoners as dotty yet sweet characters. Poison seemed like such a democratic way to dispatch someone. After all, you don’t need to be strong or have any particular skill with weaponry. The killer could be young or old, healthy or infirm. It seemed almost easy.
My point of view changed after I heard a forensic toxicologist speak at a Sisters in Crime event a few years ago. If there was one lesson I learned that evening, it was this: Poisoners need no physical strength, but they must have nerves of steel. Shooting or stabbing someone takes a mere moment, whereas poison requires dedication. Many poisons require a certain amount of time to work — often it’s days, but it could be a week or more — and the poisoner must administer several doses of poison. Given that the poisoner normally needs to be in close proximity to his or her victim, this means that the killer has to be able to look into the eyes of their victim, engage them in conversation, perhaps even be affectionate with them — all the while knowing that they’re killing this person.
There was something particularly horrific about that idea to me. How could you live with someone and slowly murder them? Wouldn’t the killer change his or her mind at some point? It’s never been hard for me to understand a crime a passion. I can see how a person — carried away by rage or jealousy or some other dark impulse — might make a terrible decision in a heartbeat… and, a moment later, be filled with terrible, unceasing grief. But imagining what would drive someone to the ruthless, heartless act of poisoning has been a tougher task.
That question led directly to the title story in my new collection. “The Black Widow Club” begins with a gunshot, but it ends with deeper, more horrific crimes. I used to think of poisons as exotic, strange concoctions that could be recognized by distinct marks, like the red rash that was symptomatic of belladonna. But the reality is that some of the hardest-to-detect poisons are already in our homes and garden sheds. And the killer is already inside the house.
The Black Widow Club is available as an eBook via bookpeople.com.