The Killer Bean of Calabar and Other Stories

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This is a careful look at poison and poisoners, how poison works, and some of the jollier cases of poisoning.

Release date

This book was released for sale in Australia on July 9, 2004. Google the title to find bookshops which have it available. On July 22, 2004, I heard that there will be a US hardback edition in early 2005, brought out by Arcade Books. The publisher is happy, the author is gigglingly ecstatic. You can see details at http://tinyurl.com/4d245, which is a Tiny URL shortcut to the Amazon page for the book. The ISBN is 1559707615, and the title of the US edition is Poisons: From Hemlock to Botox to the Killer Bean of Calabar.

There is also to be a Polish translation of the book in June 2005. It is called Fasolka z Kalabaru. O truciznach i trucicielach prawie wszystko. ISBN: 83-7163-442-0

The Slovakian edition (Zabijácka fazul'a z Calabaru a iné príbehy) is coming in June 2006, and a Russian one finally got here in September 2008, while a Korean translation is on the way from Pamir. I have also written a book on poisons for young people. I wanted to call it that and outrage people, but the publishers said no :-(

Chapter list:

  1. Poison's children
  2. A slew of poisoners
  3. Poison and food
  4. The detection of poison
  5. Poison in the medicine chest
  6. Cosmetic and domestic poisons
  7. Poisoned workplaces
  8. Poisonous politics
  9. Poison and war
  10. Envenomed fangs and stings
  11. The tiny poisoners

The cover for the US Edition In the book, I look at some of the many uses of poisons, both for financial gain, and also, sometimes for the benefit of the one poisoned. You may need to think about that one for a while . . . in reality, poisons do far more good than harm.

I suppose that if there is a central theme, it is that there is a mystique, a romance to poisons. Poisons level the playing-field, allowing women to get back at men, or lesser mortals to harm their rulers: at least, that is how those on top of the heap, the rulers, the alpha males and their like saw it.

That opened niche markets for those supplying poisons, and for those fighting poisons, either by selling antidotes and those offering their skills as detectors of poisons in dead bodies. That way, the dead, even if they cannot avoid the poison, can be assured as they die, that their poisoners will be caught, but that led to a sort of arms race between the poison concocters, and the poison sleuths, running through most of the 19th century.

Then there are the state-approved poisons, used in executions of trouble-makers like Socrates or Phokion, and the state-approved poisons used in some wars. For the most part, though, poison is like sexually-transmitted disease: we don't have it, but that neighbouring country to the north, south, east or west, they have it in a big way.

As usual, I am interested in the people, their interactions and the social effects that poisons have had, as well as the science. There is an exquisite beauty in the way tetrodotoxin is made harmless to its hosts, the way a wasp moth vomits over its mate, or the way a mongoose withstands the venom of the cobra. To me, these are things worth exploring, so I do.

Highlights include a number of criminal cases, because at one stage, this was going to be called Mr Pugh's Breakfast Table Book, which, as all Dylan Thomas fans will know, is a reference to the book Mr Pugh read, a work called Lives of the Great Poisoners. Later, it became a great deal more, and we see poison in the Bible, poison in royal courts everywhere, poison used for gain or in lieu of divorce, poison used in hunting, in medicine, and even in preserving corpses.

In reality, the great poisoners either remain unknown, because they were clever enough to avoid being caught, or they are known, but we admire them, because they used poison for good. How they did so is left as an exercise for the reader, in the hope that you will buy, or at least read, my book!

The cover for the Russian Edition The cover for the Russian Edition The cover for the Russian Edition At least you have a choice of languages!

Killer bean of Calabar Links

The publisher's blurb
Media release from the publisher


Reviews of the Killer Bean of Calabar and Other Stories

poisons-covers-all (202K)


From Publisher's Weekly:
Macinnis ranges widely and rather lightheartedly in investigating the uses and misuses of poisons (which have received media interest of late because of the poisoning of Ukrainian prime minister Yushchenko). The author, an Australian science writer (Bittersweet: the Story of Sugar ), delivers his carefully researched material in a series of anecdotes crafted with dry humor and informed ruminations. Macinnis describes with zest the effects of all sorts of legal and illegal poisons on humans and animals. He highlights criminal cases through history, including that of Locusta, who sold fine poisons to the Roman nobility and was believed to have supplied the emperor Nero with arsenic to kill Britannicus. As recently as two centuries ago, physicians still inadvertently hastened the deaths of patients through ignorance. George Washington, for instance, may have been the victim of his doctor's prescription for bleeding and some doses of calomel. And Macinnis provides myriad examples of how poisons have permeated the workplace and the world of politics. Mussolini's henchmen forced opponents to consume lethal doses of castor oil mixed with petrol. This engrossing history is not one for the squeamish.
Publisher's Weekly, March 14, 2005. (This refers to the US edition, sold as Poisons.)

From The Australian:

USED carefully, notes Peter Macinnis in a compelling study, poison offers the killer "every chance of escaping retribution", which creates a form of murder fascinating to law-abiding citizens. Livy records the first Roman judicial trial for poisoning in 329BC. In sports such as boxing, poisons (atropine, caffeine, camphor, cocaine, digitalis, heroin and even nitroglycerine) have been used to block pain. As mood-altering drugs, poisons are tricky, too. Abraham Lincoln took mercury-based pills to relieve his melancholia, went a little crazy, then swore off them for life.
Tony Maniaty, Miscellany column, R14, The Australian, July 17-18, 2004.

More reviews

Boston Globe looks at Poisons, June 5, 2005

From The Northern Rivers Echo
November 16, 2004

Science writer/teacher Macinnis penned an earlier book of local relevance - Bittersweet, The Story of Sugar, a well researched and written tale 'full of ripping yarns and acts of bastardry,' and his follow-up about far more toxic substances is another intriguing work.

Ranging from some of history's best and least known poisoners through to poisonous work places, chemical warfare and the deadly bean of the title, grown in Africa and used to test the honesty, or otherwise, of people accused of witchcraft, it abounds in fine trivia.

When Capt Cook's crew tried cycad seeds they had a 'hearty fit of vomiting and purging' but noticed that pigs who ate them survived... until a week later when two hogs died and the rest were saved only 'with difficulty'.

Covering topics as diverse as Japan's deadly fugu fish, Sherlock Holmes' insights and the role of disinfectants in controlling bacteria, this is popular science at its best.

This file is http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/writing/calabar.htm
It was created on March 9, 2004 and last updated on September 30, 2008.
It was created by Peter Macinnis -- macinnis@ozemail.com.au (and that e-mail won't work unless you insert my first name in front of it -- sorry, but I am fed up with Sp@m, but if you can work out what to do, you are probably interesting :-)
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