Consider Sirius Black. The death of Harry’s much-maligned godfather not only redeemed him, but made readers turn more strongly against his killers. It shows, rather than tells, the antagonist’s capacity of evil, which aligns the reader with the main characters.
In my own novel, Song of the Ancients, we have reason to wonder if the protagonist, Samantha, is actually in cahoots with the bad guys. Her mentor, at least, is suspicious. He decides to find out by giving her wine tainted with the poison Aconite, found in the Monkshood plant:
I watched his long fingers curl around the bottle. His movements were practiced, but his hand trembled slightly. He uncorked the bottle and poured the rich red liquid into two glasses, offering one to me.
“To fate.” He toasted with a tight smile.
I brought the glass to my lips and let the wine settle in my mouth. It tasted of raspberry, chocolate and oak, as well as something slightly bitter.
Nicholas looked ill. He sat his glass down without tasting it.
“Do you have plans for New Year’s Eve?” I handed him the gallery show card. “You said you’d like to meet BearCloud.”
He read the card and looked at me. “Is this a peace offering?”
He seemed genuinely accommodating. For the time being, it appeared we were to act civil with each other.
I began to relax and took another sip of wine. The alcohol was hitting me hard tonight. Already my face felt slightly numb. “Would you like to study first?”
“Yes, let’s.” He seemed distracted. “You said you have your Materia Magicka completed?”
I nodded. “I got it done while I was house-sitting.” Nicholas had suggested I do the research systematically. “I have them alphabetized.”
“Then let’s begin with ‘A’.”
I took a sip of wine and pulled out the first card. “Acacia. You can use the flowers or burn the wood to stimulate psychic centers or for money spells.”
Nicholas nodded. “It can be used for protection as well. A sprig of the tree over your bed wards off evil.”
I made a note of his comment and continued. “Aconite. It’s a poison, also known by the common names of Monkshood and Wolfbane. The entire plant is poisonous, especially the leaves and roots.”
“If ingested?” he asked.
"Yes, or from contact,” I added.
This was harder. “Fifteen minutes to as long as a few hours.”
“Very good. Antidote?”
Uh oh. I hadn’t catalogued antidotes. I looked at the asterisk I’d put on the card beside the poison symbol. I had meant to go back and make additional notes on the poisons.
“I don’t know.” I had some trouble getting the words out. My mouth was numb and my lips felt swollen. I lifted my wine glass and looked at it. Still nearly full.. I set the glass down, sloshing most of its contents onto the table.
“Then I believe we will both learn something tonight.” He leaned in to peer at me, his nose only inches from mine
I was beyond caring what he did. My face was now completely numb and a tingling sensation had taken over both of my arms, as if tiny insects were crawling on them. My skin was cold and clammy and my pulse was irregular and v-e-r-y slow. I wondered for a brief moment if it would stutter to a halt.
But my mind was perfectly clear as I watched Nicholas.
He looked at his watch and then put his fingers under my chin and looked into my pupils. “How are you feeling?”
I wanted to answer him, but my mouth wouldn’t form the words.
“It would appear the reaction time for ingested aconite is closer to the fifteen minutes you quoted.”
I wanted to scream for help. All I could do was stare at him with wild eyes.
“A one to fifty drop ratio of aconite is sufficient. When taken orally, as you did, it first stimulates and later paralyses the nerves. The initial tingling gives way to long-term anesthetic action. That is why your tongue and then your face became numb.”
He shifted slightly in his chair and lifted my arm, pressing his thumb to the pulse point on my wrist. “Aconite acts on the circulation, the respiration and the nervous system. The pulse slows, possibly as low as forty beats per second. Blood pressure falls and breathing becomes slower as the respiratory system is paralyzed. Death is usually due to asphyxia. Interestingly, as in strychnine poisoning, the victim is conscious and clear-minded to the last.”
He let go of my wrist. It flopped, useless, onto the sofa. “But you know all of that, don’t you?” His tone was pure ice. “Were you afraid I wouldn’t try the bottle you left on my doorstep, so you brought a second one just in case?”
He put his lips to my ear. “I want to know why you are trying to poison me. I want to know what Nuin and his cronies are planning. And I especially want to know your part in his little scheme.” He enunciated each word with deliberate slowness, but his matter-of-fact voice told me everything I needed to know.
I was going to die.
Aconite is a plant indigenous to many parts of the world, including most of the United States. All parts of the plant are poisonous, but the root is the most toxic. A half tablespoon of a tincture of aconite root placed in a bottle of wine or whiskey is enough to kill a large man. A tincture is an alcohol extract of the material. Placed in a drink, the alcohol goes unnoticed. Aconite has been called “the perfect poison to mask a murder.” It can be detected only by sophisticated toxicology analysis using equipment that is not always available to local forensic labs, and then only if poison is actually suspected. Fans of the Harry Potter series will recognize it as Wolfsbane, the plant Professor Snape brews to help Remus Lupin when he transform into a werewolf at the full moon. Legend is it got that nickname because Greek hunters used it on poison arrows to hunt wolves.
Poor Samantha forgot to research antidotes, but it wouldn’t have done her much good anyway. The only known antidote for Aconite is a purgative, like Ipecac, itself a poison which causes nausea and vomiting. Lucky for her, she only took two swallows of wine. And does Ipecac sound familiar? Check your medicine cabinet, you might have the syrup.
I confess I’m fascinated by the plant world’s criminal element. There’s something so cold about poison. It seems exotic and foreign, yet many of these dark villains are growing in our own back yards, pastures and roadsides, or included in everyday remedies sold over-the-counter.
Next blog, we’ll move to the B’s and I’ll tell you some stories about Belladonna, the deadly Black Nightshade still used in eye drops.
Until then, don’t eat any berries off that bush in your yard.