A Non-Fiction Double-Dip Review: Secrets, Wombats and Posionous Victorians…



Before you hoe into your chosen snack for today, I suggest you give it a bit of a sniff.  Check its colour.  Consider whether anyone you might call an enemy was involved in preparing it.  And make sure you aren’t bending over (or at least that you are wearing pants with a reinforced seat).  For today’s nonfiction Double Dip involves two secret worlds – that of the Victorian age poison murderer, and that of the bum-biting wombat.  We received the first of these books from the publisher via Netgalley and the second we picked up on a whim while browsing the bum-biting wombat section at our local library.  Extra points to you if you know under what Dewey number books about bum- biting wombats are shelved.  Let’s tuck in!

First up we have The Secret Poisoner: The Victorian Age of Poisoning by Linda Stratmann.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Murder by poison alarmed, enthralled, and in many ways encapsulated the Victorian age. Linda Stratmann’s dark and splendid social history reveals the nineteenth century as a gruesome battleground where poisoners went head-to-head with authorities who strove to detect poisons, control their availability, and bring the guilty to justice. She corrects many misconceptions about particular poisons and documents how the evolution of issues such as marital rights and the legal protection of children impacted poisonings. Combining archival research with a chemist’s expertise and a novelist’s eye, Stratmann charts the era’s inexorable rise of poison cases both gruesome and sad.

Dip into it for…the secret poisoner

an ultra-thorough coverage of the use of poison in Victorian age murders (mostly in England and France) and the advances in forensic chemical science that allowed the law to gain convictions for murder by poison based on physical evidence. The format of this book consists of collections of actual cases of murder, attempted murder or suspected murder from the time period, interspersed with information about the scientists and chemists whose discoveries allowed for more efficient and accurate means of detecting poison in the deceased. The cases are well selected to demonstrate how court cases succeeded or failed upon the strength of the scientific evidence provided – or in some cases, how public opinion swayed the outcome of certain trials when the science was not yet developed sufficiently to keep pace with the kind of evidence that would provide the jury with the information needed to reasonably acquit or convict. The book focuses also on the gender and class issues surrounding poison murders, with women and the poorer classes seemingly more likely to use widely available and easily accessible poisons (both mineral and vegetable) to commit dastardly deeds.

Don’t dip if…

…you are looking for a concise history on the topic.  While I was very engaged with the information early on in the book, by the halfway point, I started to feel as if I had seen all this before.  Each chapter follows the same structure, beginning with a case study and the assertion that this case was pivotal in advancing either the science of poison detection or the laws related to availability of poisons, followed by a look at the key scientists of the time and their work, succeeded by a bunch of other murder case studies.  Similarly, each murder case study followed a very similar format: the details of the victim and murderer, the instance in which the victim fell sick and died (or didn’t, as the case may be), the exhumation of the victim (and in some cases, other corpses that, in hindsight, may have suffered the same fate by the same hand), the court case, the conviction (or acquittal) and the execution (or transportation or getting-off-scot-free!).  Even though the introduction notes that the author left out many interesting cases that were too similar to the ones included, I feel that a good deal more slashing and hacking could have been done in the selection process for the various cases presented.

Overall Dip Factor

Despite the fact that the book is long and could have done with a bit more fussiness in the selection of the cases presented, I was nevertheless fascinated with some of the information revealed here.  Some of the cases, particularly relating to memorable murderers who seemed quite happy to top their own children (as well as any number of other people’s offspring) almost beggared belief, but serves as a good reminder as to how common infant and child mortality were during the Victorian age, such that communities might not think it strange that a woman’s husband, five children, three step-children and the next-door-neighbour’s cat might all die within a week of each other, for instance.  I would recommend this one for fans of forensic investigation TV shows, who are looking for a blast from the past as to how the experts got their man (or more commonly, woman) back in the Victorian day.

Next up we have The Secret Life of Wombats by Jackie French and illustrated by Bruce Whatley.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A non-fiction book that explores everything you’ve ever wanted to know about wombats. Jackie French loves wombats. She’s been living with and studying them for over 30 years, and they have been featured characters in many of her books. Now her beloved wombats take centre stage, as Jackie reveals everything you have ever wanted to know about them – from their zoological history to habitation and habits. Jackie also shares some personal stories from her experiences living with these wonderful creatures. there are also wombat Q&As and wombat jokes sprinkled throughout the book.

Dip into it for… secret world of wombats

an extremely amusing and light-hearted look at the things you never suspected about wombats’ behaviour. This book is marketed as being for seven to twelve year olds as a companion tome to the wildly successful Diary of a Wombat series by the same author and illustrator team, but as an adult reader I found it the perfect introductory tome about the wild and wacky world of wombats. The text doesn’t speak down to the reader by any means, so I never got the sense that it was specifically written for kids. Also, the book is full of unexpectedly hilarious anecdotes about the wombats that Jackie French has personally known, through sharing her outdoor living space with the furry little guys. Every time I recall her story about hearing sneezing coming from underground, I have a bit of a chuckle. Similarly, who knew that wombats had a penchant for biting bums (wombat bums and others), or indeed any other parts of the anatomy that aren’t kept out of the way of wombat teeth? Amazing.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re expecting some kind of scientific coverage of wombat husbandry or habitat. While I didn’t notice particularly that this was directed at kids, nor does it go into the kind of detail a book targeted at adults would on such a topic.

Overall Dip Factor

If you have any interest at all in wombats and their lives, I would recommend picking this book up and having a flick through.  The information bits are engaging and surprising and combined with French’s anecdotal evidence about wombats she has known, provide a light, fun, nonfiction break for youngsters interested in the natural world and adult readers who just really like wombats.

Now that our snack time is at an end, how are you feeling? Tummy rumbling? Tightness in the bowels? Bowl smashed by a wombat?  Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Until next time,