Arsenic in the Sugarbowl?


If you haven’t already read Shirley Jackson’s final novel, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”, please be reassured that the title of this post gives nothing away. In fact, if you haven’t worked out the identity of the murderer in the first fifty pages or so, perhaps you need to read a bit more Agatha Christie – because it’s really quite obvious, I’m afraid.

In fact, the character I’m more interested is one of the survivors of that event – Uncle Julian Blackwood. Now it would be very fair to say that he’s a bit of a strange old bug; confined to a wheelchair since the murders and apparently with a tenuous grip on reality. Jackson seems content to suggest that Julian’s afflictions are a direct result of his recovery from arsenic poisoning, but this doesn’t seem right to me. Admittedly, everything I know about arsenic comes from reading a lot of Victorian crime histories (it was a great favourite in those days, as it was easy to get hold of and administer) and, of course, the Great Agatha, but she much preferred cyanide. Still…

Before the murders, Julian was apparently fully ambulant and happily married, although having to live with his brother and his family due to being somewhat impecunious. Yet when the reader first sees him, he’s confined to a wheelchair (and frequently confined to his bed), on a restricted diet and often unable to recognise the two women he sees on a daily basis – Constance is often mistaken for his late wife, while Merricat is simply not recognised at all.

Julian’s vagueness is reinforced by his frequent questioning of Constance – “did it really happen?” His memory is failing and he keeps copious notes on the murder and the trial. He says he is writing a book about it, but tellingly reveals on page 62:

“I really think I shall commence chapter forty four,” he said, patting his hands together. “I shall commence, I think, with a slight exaggeration and go on from there into an outright lie.”

Is he actually writing the definitive version of events, or simply his version of events? When Miss Wright visits unexpectedly, he takes considerable glee in showing her the dining room and entertaining her with his account of the fateful night – which he seems to remember very well indeed. I can’t help but think this is Jackson taking a sideswipe at Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, but I digress.

My point is that I have never seen portrayed anyone survive arsenic poisoning to suffer from such limb paralysis as to render them virtually immobile or any apparent symptom of dementia – from what I can gather, that isn’t how arsenic works. I can only assume, therefore, that it wasn’t just arsenic in the sugarbowl. Given that both Constance and Merricat are well versed in herbal toxicology (which they must have learned from somewhere, so I’ll open the suspect list to include the rest of the family), it wouldn’t be too much to assume that some kind of natural neurotoxin was added to the mix – at least, this would explain Julian’s symptoms much better. Whether it was added to ensure that the family died quickly, or by someone who didn’t realise that the arsenic was already there, isn’t elaborated on by Jackson, so I’m afraid we’ll never know.

I don’t think Hercule Poirot would have taken much time over the investigation though.