Informa Markets

Author Bio ▼

Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.
April 7, 2009

Get the SHP newsletter

Daily health and safety news, job alerts and resources

Book review- Molecules of murder – Criminal molecules and classic cases

writes Andrew Rankine.Until the recent cases of Litvinenko (Po210) and Markov (ricin), onemight have suspected that poisoning was going out of fashion.Certainly, the bullet or the bomb represent a clearer statement, butthe stealthy poison surely does have a certain élan.

John Emsley is best known for his series of popular science books that

have been translated and reprinted many times. The toxicological

aspects of his subjects are often to the fore, and this present book is

no exception.


The book is in two parts. Part one focuses on naturally-occurring

molecules that were originally used by physicians before becoming more

notorious as murder weapons. In this part, we find tales involving the

misuse of diamorphine, adrenaline, ricin, and atropine. Part two deals

with synthetic molecules that have also been misused in famous crimes:

polonium chloride; paraquat; chloroform.


There are ten molecules to consider, and in each case we are introduced

to the natural history or development of the substance and its common

uses. This is the bit that chemists will enjoy most, as each chapter is

full of interesting nuggets of information that you just don’t find in

the standard toxicology textbooks. The second half of each chapter then

focuses on a specific murder case in which the substance was misused.

This shows us the mind of the murderer, his – or sometimes her – modus

operandi and the forensic work that sometimes led to the poisoner being

caught, or sometimes not.


The reader learns how forensic science has developed increasingly

sophisticated methods of detecting minute quantities of toxins, and how

some of the molecules are now used as therapeutic agents in their own



This is not the typical health and safety book that one usually

encounters in these pages, but it is an excellent read for the chemist,

toxicologist, or occupational hygienist who is interested in the world

of ‘true crime’. It should also be of interest to any safety specialist

wishing to learn something of the fascinating history of toxins and

their misuse. As usual with Emsley, the writing is a model of clarity,

the stories logically laid out, and there is a useful glossary with

line diagrams for many molecules we meet along the way. The science

ought not to tax anybody with school-level chemistry.


Highly recommended, too, for anybody who enjoys a good thriller!



Author: John Emsley

Published by RSC Publishing –

ISBN 978-0-85404-965-3

Price: £14.95

Related Topics

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments