When Dr William Macbeth poisoned two of his sons in 1927, his wife and sister hid the murders in the intensely private realm of family secrets.
Like the famous British poisoner Dr Crippen, Macbeth behaved as if he were immune to consequences; unlike Crippen, however, he avoided detection and punishment. Or did he? Secrets can be as corrosive as poison, and as time passed, the story of Dr William Macbeth, well-dressed poisoner, haunted and divided his descendants.
Macbeth’s grand-daughter, Gail Bell, who grew up with the story, spent ten years reading the literature of poisoning in order to ‘read’ and understand Macbeth’s life. Herself a chemist, she listened for echoes in the great cases of the nineteenth century, in myths, fiction, and poison lore.
Intricate, elegant, and beautifully realised, this is a book about family secrets and literary poisonings. It is a meditation on death, deceit and language, and answers questions like: how do arsenic, cyanide and strychnine work? Why is it so hard to poison someone these days? Was it ever easy?
And it finally answers the question of what really happened to those small boys in the winter of 1927.
March 2017 sees the publication of a new edition of The Poison Principle, from Xoum Publishing, with an introduction by Helen Garner.
Garner writes “…what an engaging, witty, authoritative voice she has—what a light touch! She strides across the history of poisons, their uses and meanings. She is always elegant, gliding and bounding and landing in astonishing places.”
Winner of the NSW Premier’s Literary Award
Intricate, elegant, and beautifully realised, The Poison Principle is a masterful book about family secrets and literary poisonings.