Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Chase Your Scotch with Cyanide?

By Chester Campbell

In the book I'm currently laboring over, I have an attempted poisoning. I consulted two of Dr. Doug Lyle's books, Murder and Mayhem and Forensics for Dummies, which I keep on the shelf for just such occasions. I needed a quick-acting poison that would mix well with Scotch. I read the possibilities and concluded that cyanide, more specifically potassium cyanide, would provide just the tool I needed.

My next problem was I wanted the toxic ingredient to be discovered quickly. I knew enough about forensics to be aware that toxicological testing takes a good while. You frequently hear the police or the medical examiner saying the toxicology results will be available in a few weeks. Mystery plots don't have that long to wait.

So I queried the good doctor. If you haven't visited his website, The Writer's Medical and Forensics Lab, you've missed a great resource. It used to be you could email him a question and get a detailed answer shortly. Times have changed.

"Unfortunately, since we have far too many lawyers in this country and a legal system that is most often devoid of common sense," Doug says, he now requires your complete identification in a specific format before he can give you an answer. It's all to make sure you're a legitimate mystery writer and not interested in nefarious activities.

I pointed out that my plot makes the bottle highly suspect for being polluted with cyanide and asked if my homicide detective could get it checked by a simple test that wouldn't take too long. His reply:

"How long this would take depends upon the sophistication of his lab. If you are in a major city such as New York or Los Angeles where there are active and well-equipped crime labs this could take a day, particularly if this were a high profile case. On the other hand if you run a smaller jurisdiction he might have to send this to a reference lab, a state lab, or the FBI lab and this can take many weeks to get done. And anywhere in between. What this means is that you can set your story up to get the results in almost any time frame you want."

In my case, the Metro Nashville Police Department doesn't have a toxicology lab, so they would send the bottle to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Forensics Division in a Nashville suburb. My detective has a good friend in the TBI toxicology lab who gets the job done expeditiously.

Dr. Lyle also has a daily blog, The Writer's Forensics Blog, that's full of interesting stuff. A couple of days ago he had an interview with a retired bioethics professor who has written a book titled The Arsenic Century with some intriguing info on the subject. I highly recommend both the blog and his website.

By the way, next time you take a nip of Scotch, you might want to sniff it for a bitter almond smell.


Sheila Deeth said...

I love that you have to prove you're legit... Sounds a great resource. And I'll watch out for the scent of almonds.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Great post, Chester. Thanks for Dr. Lyle's links.

Ben Small said...

Enjoyed this one immensely, Chester. Just wish you'd put your John Hancock on it so you'd get the credit on my Facebook page. :<)

Chester Campbell said...

Thanks for reminding me, Ben. I plain forgot to put my byline on it.