Monday, 16 March 2009

The Young Poisoner's Handbook

The case of Graham Young is one of the most interesting murder-by-poisoning stories of the 20th century, and I’ve just watched the film based on Anthony Holden’s account of the case, The Young Poisoner’s Handbook.

Young discovered the efficiency of thallium as a means of committing murder whilst a teenager. He poisoned several people, including – fatally - his step-mother. Sent to Broadmoor, he was treated with some care and sympathy and ultimately released into the community – he was regarded as fully recovered. Thereafter, he found a job in a photographic supply business, but started to poison his colleagues. For weeks it was thought that the company had been afflicted by some mysterious ‘bug’, which resulted in two men suffering quite agonising deaths. It was only when Young started asking too many questions which revealed his obsessive fascination with poison that his background was checked and he was arrested. Surprisingly, he pleaded not guilty, but he went back to Broadmoor, where he died – allegedly of a heart attack, although there is some debate as to whether he was killed by fellow prisoners, or committed suicide; the film opts for the suicide version of events.

The film is a quirky comedy, and and attempts to mitigate accusations of tastelessness by distancing itself from the real-life story in a variety of ways. This makes for a better film, but a less insightful account of a very strange young man’s make-up. Hugh O’Conor plays Young, and the cast also includes such notable names as Roger Lloyd Pack and Anthony Sher (both do a good job, especially Sher as the gulled psychiatrist.)

Graham Young was one of the most remarkable poisoners in the history of crime. It is said that his hero was Dr Crippen. However, it’s worth remembering that if Crippen did murder his wife (which is open to question), he did it quickly, and the crime was a one-off. There is something remarkably cruel, to my mind, about the way Young allowed his victims to endure such horrific suffering. And it’s a level of cruelty that the film, although entertaining, does not begin to explain.


Dorte H said...

Poison murders have always fascinated me, both in real life & crime fiction (Sayers´ Strong Poison is a fine example & it seems as if it was quite easy to come by poison at the time). It is difficult to write good novels about it today, I think, because it is a rather risky & unlikely murder method.
Have you ever used poison in your books?

Martin Edwards said...

I agree, Dorte. The only time poison features significantly (as far as I can remember!) is in Dancing for the Hangman, based on the true case of Crippen. Even The Arsenic Labyrinth isn't really a poisoning mystery, despite the title!

Dorte H said...

Nevertheless I suddenly feel the question was a bit stupid as I have The Arsenic Labyrinth on my shelf. If I had thought about it, I would have expected something poisonous to pop up :)