Molecules of Murder: Criminal Molecules and Classic Cases
By John Emsley
Royal Society of Chemistry, 2008
In this highly engaging, detailed and morbidly fascinating slim volume, chemist John Emsley narrates the stories of those who made use of science for killing their fellow beings through deadly means. Emsley recounts the use of famous chemicals used as poisons in famous and some not-so-famous murder cases.He tells us ten stories in ten chapters, each devoted to a specific poison and specific murder case in which it was used. The cases are fascinating for science buffs because of the scientific background about the poisons, and for others for the ingenious thinking that went both into the murders and the detective work involved in solving them.
The stories span a range of countries, periods and motives for murder. They feature famous victims such as former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko as well as lesser-known victims whose killing was also equally deadly and well-planned. Each story has comprehensive details on the personal or political background of the victims and murderers and their times, as well as detailed background on the poisons themselves, including their history, chemical and biological characteristics, use and availability and actual administration to the victims. During this process, Emsley uncovers a range of diabolical and murderous characters who each had their own motives, personal or political, for causing the death of one or several persons.
While the famous murders like Litvinenko’s from polonium and Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov’s from ricin are told in fascinating detail, so are the murders involving relatively low-profile and yet deadly poisons like adrenaline, diamorphine and atropine. Emsley also covers murders that used the standard and deadly poisons carbon monoxide and cyanide. Many of these chemicals are relatively easily accessible and that makes their use more difficult to control. Particular chilling is the case of Kristen Gilbert, a nurse who used adrenaline to kill her patients essentially by giving them fatal heart attacks. The story is made more grim by the fact that Gilbert was a nurse who was supposed to be a giver of life, and that adrenaline which is a substance produced naturally by the body is a very clever choice for a poison since its levels rapidly fade and it’s hard to detect it as a foreign poison.
The first and last chapters dealing with the Litvinenko and Markov murders from polonium and ricin merit special attention because of their high-profile political nature and the rather exotic identity of the poisons used. Markov was murdered by an agent aided by the KGB while standing on a bridge on the Thames River in London. The murder weapon used was most unlikely; an umbrella with a tip containing a pellet with an extremely tiny amount of ricin which was injected into Markov’s thigh by an ‘accidental’ jab which he hardly felt. Ricin is one of the most toxic substances known to man, and within three days Markov had died a painful and inexplicable death. The murder was well-planned and ingenious. Emsley who himself was involved in this case as a scientific expert gives a fascinating description of the rather simple but ingenious forensic work that went into ascertaining the amount of poison used, which made it possible to eliminate many well-known poisons.
The Litvinenko case is still fresh in everyone’s mind. Litvinenko was a former agent of the FSB (the successor of the KGB) who accused prominent Russian politicians and businessmen of nefariously bringing Vladimir Putin to power. His murder also took place in London in a cafe with another unlikely poison- tea laced with radioactive polonium 210. The fact that he could not be saved in spite of 50 years of knowledge about radioactive substances and their effects on biological systems indicates how we can still miss the ‘obvious’. It took a long time before polonium 210 emerged as a suspected poison, and this apparently is the first case when this rather well-known substance was used for assassinating a political target. The source was almost certainly a nuclear reactor or some other facility in Russia. While the attempt was successful, the choice of poison was less than perfect since the polonium left a trail of radioactive hot spots literally leading from one location to another. While this combined with Litvinenko’s extensive testimony before his death made it possible to finally uncover the suspect, as of now the man is enjoying political immunity in Russia, a fact that may give some credence to the suspicion that Putin may somehow have known about Litvinenko’s murder.
These and other morbid cases Emsley narrates with details about the science, chemical history and detective work as well as the politics, personal and social history of the victims and murderers that should keep anyone engaged. For science fans, it is important reading about how science can be used to do harm, and for others, at the very least it is a fascinating set of detective stories that should keep them glued to their chairs. The one problem I had with the book was its format; the font could have been more attractive and the illustrations should have been interspersed within the text instead of curiously being stitched together at the end. But these are minor shortcomings of an otherwise fascinating and lucid book.
I can only end by saying that in this period of paranoia about terrorist acts, it may not be a good idea to read this book in the airport security line.