I spent Thursday to Sunday last week at Crimefest, where I moderated a couple of panels. Linda Stratmann was on one of them. She is the author of a book entitled CHLOROFORM which I’d heard was good – and it is. As far as I’d thought at all about it, I’d been aware of chloroform as a staple plot device in nineteenth century crime fiction and I might also have been able to come up with the fact that Queen Victoria was one of earliest women to have the pangs of child-birth relieved by it. But there is far more to the story of chloroform and Linda’s carefully researched and well-written account is enthralling. Until its discovery surgery had been an agonising process and the risk of shock was considerable. Chloroform at first seemed nothing short of miraculous. However it was not longer before rumours of a disquieting nature began to circulate; a number of young and apparently patients failed to come round from the anaesthetic. It was to be a very long time before the reasons for this were discovered and for around a hundred years chloroform continued to be in common use. It was superseded by among other things, including ether, which I remember being given at the dentist as a child. It was vile stuff, and chloroform in spite of its risks sounds much nicer. I was amused to learn that it would take far more a whiff of a chloroform-soaked hanky that so often features in early mystery stories to put someone out. However it was nice to learn from Linda at the conference that Agatha Christie, who had worked in a hospital dispensary, was one writer who knew her poisons.
Linda’s own first novel, THE POISONOUS SEED, set in 1880s Bayswater, has just come out.