Each 'poison' gets its own section that really stands alone - Emsley never tries to tie any of them together other than the introductory chapter basically telling you that they're all bad and behind countless mysterious deaths over time - both high profile and banal. The elements Emsley describes all kill by slow accumulation that doctors almost always misdiagnosed. A weakness of the book was the Euro-centrism of the true crime stories.
It's a history of the heavy metals arsenic, antimony, thallium, lead, and mercury; the uses human societies have put them to; and the (frequently horrifying) consequences thereof. And then it is also a history of the use of these heavy metals for murder.
Living because while it explains the chemistry behind many elements known now to be poisonous, it is told not from a dry technical perspective but within the context of people that were affected by living with medical treatments that were actually poisonous dosing and other situations where they came in contact with these various elements. It is a book with real history in it, because as the author explains the chemical properties this is done in conjunction with many different "sudden deaths" in the past that can now probably be diagnosed as due to poison.
This is not your run of the mill true crime book, its a good deal more with scientific analysis of the poisonous elements and interesting chapters on other uses. One such example is Fowlers Solution a medicinal tonic and treat-all which was arsenic-based; overdoses were a reality and adding a little extra to the mix was not unheard of. See links for Marsh Test https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marsh_test Mercury based medicine came to be used in the treatment of syphilis, but mercury and mercury vapour are toxic. This unusual element was at one time thought to be First Matter, from which all other metals derived, and alchemists used it (and were poisoned by it) in the search for transmutation. The wiki page for mercury poisoning states: Common symptoms of mercury poisoning include peripheral neuropathy, presenting as paresthesia or itching, burning, pain, or even a sensation that resembles small insects crawling on or under the skin (formication); skin discoloration (pink cheeks, fingertips and toes); swelling; and desquamation (shedding or peeling of skin). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercury... Im familiar with the case from previous books but this account was detailed and complimented the scientific accounts of this metallic poison. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graham_... The great Agatha Christie used thallium as the murder element in her story The Pale Horse where she describes the effects of this poison, which was little known at the time.
The breadth of the book was perfect for the sort of scope the author wanted to achieve, trying to reach the academically competent, especially those with a knowledge of chemistry.
Perhaps focusing on one or two famous cases for each element would have been a better approach.
At times, Newton withdrew into virtual isolation and in 1693, when he was 50-years-old, his behaviour became so abnormal that his sanity was even questioned. In fact, only five (all of them metals) get serious page time: Mercury, Lead, Antimony, Arsenic, and Thallium. 2. Arsenic, Thallium, and Antimony are covered in other books (such as the fabulous A is for Arsenic), which made much of the information in this books seem like old news. But...here is why I still enjoyed the book: The introduction about the history of alchemy and that first chapter on mercury were fabulous! However, in parts, it seemed like the author wanted to write a book about mercury only, and then felt compelled to add more chapters.