Murder needs chemistry. We are not talking about the rash, violent type where the murderer grabs a gun or a knife but the more cold blooded, subtle kind that requires the use of poisons. We realised this when we started writing a murder mystery and were flummoxed at each stage because the minimal chemistry learnt in school did not equip us to know which is the more suitable poison if you want the victim discovered only the next day after having taken a phone call the previous evening, not looking obviously poisoned, what would be the dosage required, and because we are soft we wouldn’t want them to have suffered too much and it would also help the story line if we could get the murderer to distill the poison in a home lab. Just the basics of any old murder mystery but the details are important to build up the story.
Consequently we have been bemoaning the lack of practical chemistry education in schools, which seems to be true even today going by all the kids who are less than enthused by the subject. Beyond tedious memorising of the periodic table and the distinct rotten egg smell of hydrogen sulphide there is not much else that stays in one’s mind from school chemistry lessons. Alan Bradley‘s eighth Flavia de Luce book ‘Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mewed‘ which we read recently, had the twelve year old precocious detective going about the countryside solving murders effortlessly through the use of chemistry; inciting sighs of envy at each turn of the page at Mr. Bradley’s knowledge of not just the subject but also its history.
So we wonder why we had not been inspired to look at chemistry in a different light in school. To think of the possibilities and the practical uses we could have put it too! We could have been amazing gardeners ensuring the most spectacular garden because our plants would have been fed the correct nutrients and the right combinations of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium etc. Or, we imagine ourselves as ground breaking organic farmers recognising the artificial chemicals from the natural ones and throwing them out. We may have been world class, constellation level, Michelin starred chefs knowing the exact chemical reactions of the ingredients with each other and with degrees of heat, not to mention the chemical interactions between our creations and saliva for optimum effect. We could also have been intrepid archaeologists, discovering lost civilisations or even a palaeontologist discovering dinosaur bones and cleaning up our finds with the gentlest chemicals, carbon dating and carrying out the correct DNA sequencing. Not to mention the pharmaceutical and bio chemical uses of chemistry for developing lifesaving drugs.
Truly, it’s only when one is older that one realises how pervasive chemistry is, being as it is, the stuff of life. Is there anything that we do or any human behaviour which is not dictated by chemical reactions within our bodies or our brains? And in knowing how these chemical reactions make us work, can we not control them? There are also the numerous nefarious uses of chemistry like the processing of fossil fuels, manufacturing of plastics and of hallucinatory substances which we shall leave out. There are limits, after all, to the practical applications that should be taught in schools, except perhaps as a warning about the rampant destruction that can also be caused by misuse of any subject.
But the need we have for chemistry right now is to enable us to effectively plot and detect a murder. Asking friends and acquaintances who have some knowledge of the subject seems dodgy and would garner a lot of strange looks and snide comments, which we can do without. Google searches are likely to raise a lot of eyebrows from persons who have access to our search history; possibly also trepidation at the reasons for such searches, requiring lengthy explanations from us of the plot and story line. All of it best avoided. The search is on for a practical workshop for murder mystery writers. Chemistry teachers, are you reading?