I fell asleep with the radio on a couple weeks ago, and when I awoke it was to the sounds of a news story relating that the body of Yasser Arafat was being exhumed so that it could be tested for signs of poison. Poison. I was instantly reminded of a short story I read a few weeks ago, “Suspicion” by Dorothy L. Sayers. It resides in one of my many short story anthologies that I’ve been using as a source for my 2012 Short Story Reading project.
Sayers (1893-1957) was predominantly known as a writer of mysteries and crime stories, but also dabbled in drama and poetry and was herself particularly proud of her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. This was the first work of hers I’d read, and I didn’t know what to expect. What I got was a neatly constructed story that was somewhat reminiscent to me of “The Red Signal” by Agatha Christie (which I read last year) in the tidiness of its plot line.
(above: Dorothy L. Sayers)
Poisoning has always seemed to me the most insidious choice of methods by a murderer. I remember as a kid learning that, in the ancient world, some rulers, suspicious of all and in constant paranoia for fear of poisoning, employed “tasters” who would test their food or drink to make sure it was safe for consumption. If the tester didn’t drop dead, presumably it was safe to eat or drink. (wouldn’t this only screen the fast-acting poisons though?)
Particularly memorable to me was a scene in the epic, big budget film, “Cleopatra,” starring Richard Burton as Mark Antony and Rex Harrison(!) as Julius Caesar, with the young Elizabeth Taylor in the title role. One of Cleo’s female servant/”tasters” brings her a cup of wine, pretends to taste it, then proceeds to hand it to the queen. One of the Queen’s “ladies-in-waiting” notices that the servant only pretended to taste it and alerts Cleopatra. “Drink it,” orders the Queen. The hapless servant admits it is poisoned and begs Cleopatra to forgive her. The Queen then says, “I forgive you… Now drink it.” She complies and, of course, proceeds to drop dead.
Enough with the digression. What happens in this story?
Well, “Mr. Mummery” is commuting to the office by train when he begins to notice an increasing pain in his stomach. Though dreading what might be an oncoming sickness, he continues to read the paper, which includes the sensational account of a case of poisoning wherein a cook – known only as Mrs. Andrews – had, using arsenic, victimized the family which she served.
Mr. Mummery doesn’t immediately make the connection that he and his wife had recently hired a new cook “with no references.” The rest of the story follows Mr. Mummery’s increasing paranoia (er, suspicion) that he is being poisoned by their new cook. He notices that a container of arsenic used as an insect killer in his gardening activities has a “loose stopper” even though he’s sure he replaced firmly after his last use.
Though he recovers from his initial illness, his wife is also sickly (though this is not unusual for her) and he decides to be more careful and “drink more orange juice.” In spite of his caution, however, he suffers from another, more serious attack. Just as the evidence against the new cook seems to pile up, the mysterious Mrs. Andrews is captured by the police. With her no longer being at large, what could be the cause of his ailments? Is there more than one poisoner at large? Has he let his suspicion run away with him? We only find out in the final sentence of this story.
I couldn’t find this story available on line, nor could I even find it for sale anywhere. Perhaps it resides only in my anthology…(if anyone knows of a collection it’s in that’s for sale, please let me know and. I will share a link with my readers). Update: Nina put me on the right track – here is an Amazon link to the story collection that includes “Suspicion” for those who might be interested: http://www.amazon.com/In-Teeth-Evidence-Dorothy-Sayers/dp/0061043567 For my part, I wouldn’t mind exploring some other works by this author. Are there any Sayers experts out there? Favorite works to recommend?
What about other “Famous Poisonings in Literature?” How many can you think of…