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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 18th February 2013

Though I profess to pay little attention to the use of poisons in fiction I’m returning to the subject today.

Most fiction takes liberties with the truth about poisons for the entirely justifiable reason that the plot would not stand up if the authors were completely accurate. In a recent episode of BBC1’s ‘Death in Paradise’, the victim died after drinking a cocktail loaded with strychnine from Strychnos nux-vomica, the poison nut tree. For the plot to work, she had to knock the drink back with no mention of the extreme bitter taste of the toxin. If, as would happen in real life, she had spat out the drink as soon as it touched her taste buds, the plot would have collapsed.

‘Murder in Paradise’ is a light ‘passes the time’ piece of TV drama and, if you’re willing to accept the central premise, that a small Caribbean island has a murder rate approaching that of Chicago or Baltimore, there’s no reason to be concerned about how a poison is used.

Where I do get more interested in fictional uses of poisons is when the poison is ricin from Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant. That is because most of the ‘facts’ about ricin from the media and governments are themselves fiction so I’m interested to see what fiction writers do with it.

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

I’m still trying, though making little progress, to get far enough into ‘Breaking Bad’ to see what it claims about the use and effects of ricin but, given that my problem with it is the enormous suspension of disbelief required to sustain the story, I’m not expecting it to be handled well.

Last evening saw another fictional drama based around ricin. ‘Complicit’ on Channel4 told the story of an MI5 operative who was convinced that a Muslim activist was intending to poison hundreds of people with ricin. His bosses were sceptical and the main purpose of the drama seemed to be to point up the ‘old boy’ nature of the security services and the pervasiveness of prejudice. Just as the MI5 operative assumed the Muslim activist had to be a terrorist so the ‘establishment’ assumed that being black and from the ‘wrong’ university meant the operative could not be trusted.

The race point was rammed home by the appearance, whenever the MI5 man worked late, of black office cleaners in the background.

With this as its main theme, ricin became simply a prop to support the plot rather than at the centre of it.

The writer had, clearly, done some research because, early on, a superior points out that all alleged ‘ricin plots’ have come to nothing. To circumvent that troublesome truth, the main character described, in one sentence, how terrorists have developed a means of extracting ricin by freeze-drying and compressing it into aerosol cans.

The literature does contain references to freeze-drying in relation to ricin but these are all concerned with possible treatments of existing ricin rather than as part of an extraction method.

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant

The early part of the drama showed the main character spending hours trawling through intercepted emails and making hand-written lists of contents to spot patterns. (Hand-written? What, MI5 doesn’t have a ‘find’ button on its surveillance software to collect repeated terms?) When being questioned by superiors about how sound the belief in a plot is, he says that he found one email to a known ‘dodgy character’ where the words ‘bed linen’ were included and he concludes that ‘bed linen’ is a code for ‘ricin’.

For the purposes of the plot, this fictional extraction method and the laughable ‘code’ discovery are accepted (with a degree of scepticism it is true) and the story follows its ‘villain’ to Egypt where he is arrested whilst visiting a farm where Ricinus communis is cultivated to produce castor oil. The ‘hero’ frustrated by the lack of support he is receiving from his colleagues takes a taxi and, without knowing one word of Arabic, an important plot point made earlier, succeeds in directing the driver to take him to the farm so he can make his own investigations.

Here, on a primitive farm, where lambs’ heads are left lying around and pigeons roost in the rafters of open-sided buildings, he finds three aerosol cans in a ditch, one of which is later said to have tested positive for ricin though there’s no explanation of that result. What he doesn’t find is the equipment needed for extracting ricin by freeze-drying, nor any means of milling the resulting ricin to produce a very fine particle size, nor any equipment for filling aerosol cans.

In other words, the central premise that ricin was being produced in aerosols for a terrorist attack on the UK doesn’t stand up. What the drama relied on was the public perception that ricin is a viable terror weapon.

I’ve written many times before that this is not the case so I’ll just offer another example of a piece, this time from the Chicago Tribune in 2004, explaining why, as the headline says, ‘Deadly toxin not suitable as a large-scale weapon’.

There is an important difference between ‘could’ and ‘would’. Could a very sophisticated terrorist with access to large funds and advanced manufacturing techniques produce ricin in spite of knowing that ricin is not practical as a large-scale killer? Yes. Would he do so when there are simpler, more efficient means of committing mass killings? No.

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