More Molecules of Murder

Cover of “More Molecules of Murder” with a variety of plantsWith Emsley’s third book on murder, one might get the impression that he is preoccupied with this subject. In his introduction he mentions his first book, Elements of Murder, and the precursor to this one, Molecules of Murder. Anyone planning a murder may want to check out these books for ideas. However, murderers beware. While these molecules have been successful in the past, as you will read, medical science has improved to the point that most, if not all of the symptoms, are recognizable and can be traced. Also there are now lifesaving techniques available to foil your plan.

Moreover, as Emsley notes, this is not a book that focuses on the murderer, the victim or the detective work. It is mainly concerned with the substances themselves, their chemistry and how they have been used to kill. To that end, More Molecules of Murder is structured in two parts: man-made molecules and natural toxins. Each chapter presents the molecule's background history, its natural use, often as a medicinal ingredient, its method of preparation and toxicity, how it is metabolized and shuts down the human body and finally how it has been used in the past as a method of murder — or in attempts to murder.

Despite all the technical information given on each molecule, More Molecules of Murder is written for a general audience. Terms, measurements and chemical processes are explained in simple terms and referred to again in the glossary. For example, he explains ppb simply by saying it is equivalent to 1 second in thirty years — a nice analogy to remember for a high school chemistry class.  

Once he has explored the technicalities of each molecule, Emsley goes into storytelling mode as he describes numerous examples where the molecules have been used to murder or attempted it. These stories are fascinating, and since they are presented chronologically, one can see that in more recent instances, the success rate of these murders decreases. Indeed, many "successful" killings were accidental. He also describes numerous serial killers who used potassium chloride, curare and digitalis among others. In addition, Emsley observes that both Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) made use of some of these molecules in their murder mysteries.

Among the man-made molecules are simple ones such as ethylene glycol, oxalic acid and potassium chloride (the only non-molecule) as well as others like temazepam and acrylamide. Interestingly, food manufacturers are altering their preparation methods to reduce the presence of this latter molecule in our food. Not only are the natural toxins curare and digitalis explored, so are gelsemine, strychnine, the aphrodisiac Spanish Fly (cantharidin) and of course hemlock. Of these, strychnine is the most common in Christie and Doyle mysteries. He does warn that one has to be very careful when dosing out Spanish Fly!

Chemistry teachers can find numerous ideas, although none resulting in a reduced class size! Each chapter links a molecule to society and technology. The glossary is a gold mine for the organic chemistry unit with the molecular structure and IUPAC names, and an assortment of interesting facts. Students can always be challenged to locate functional groups even when molecular structures are complex. You can introduce chirality to students with a discussion on hemlock.  

More Molecules of Murder can be enjoyed by anyone, although for a pharmacist, a medical practitioner or a teacher, it offers much more. It would also make an excellent gift or prize to a graduating student.

Bringing the book into recent news, Emsley notes the similarity between the poisoning of a Russian oligarch in England by gelsemine in 20101,2 and the 2007 killing in England by Po-210 of another Russian3 (polonium is already in his previous molecules book). In March 2018 (also in England) the poison novichok was used in an attempt to dispatch a former Russian spy and his daughter.4 "Only in England you say".5 Emsley's next book may need to include novichok.


  1. Alexander_Perepilichny 
  2. russian-whistleblower-traces-poison-stomach-plant-expert-says-alexander-perepilichnyy-inquest
  3. Poisoning_of_Alexander_ Litvinenko;
  4. Poisoning_of_Sergei_and_ Yulia_Skripal
  5. To quote the Red Rose Tea commercial.