Two years ago, I had to kill someone. Never mind why. He had to die. And it had to be a poison. A certain poison, I didn’t know which, but one that would do certain things in certain ways. I can’t tell you the details. A friend, whose name I can’t say, told me what to do. I didn’t have much to go on, just a first name—Luci. A Hotmail address. That was it. No website, no phone number. It was weird, and I was desperate. But within a day, I had my answer. The deed was done.
I should specify here that the poison was for what would become my debut mystery novel, A Killing in Costumes, in which a Hollywood memorabilia dealer dies after drinking a poisoned Dunkin Donuts iced coffee.
The woman who helped me, who I later found out was named Luci Zahray, but who everyone calls The Poison Lady, has been advising mystery writers for decades, and I wanted to know more. “A walking talking, poison Wiktionary,” is how Susan Wittig Albert, the NYT bestselling author of more than fifty books, describes her.
Luci is a retired pharmacist with a master’s degree in toxicology from Texas A&M. She has two great passions in life: poisons and mysteries, though she’s never poisoned anyone or tried to write a mystery.
She was born and raised in Texas, becoming a hospital pharmacist in 1982 after graduating from the University of Houston. But in 1990, she moved to Michigan. Away from family, “totally traumatized,” and unaccustomed to the climate, she threw herself into reading mysteries, which had been a singular hobby for her since her grandmother gave her a Sherlock Holmes book for her eleventh birthday.
Then she found out that Malice Domestic, a then-new annual convention for writers and fans of mysteries, was to be held not far from her home. She convinced a friend to go with her and enjoyed talking about nothing but mysteries for three days. She wrote to the organizers and pitched them on a presentation on poisons.
Lionized as she is now, fact is, you don’t get to become The Poison Lady without some tribulations first. When she first offered to lecture mystery writers about poisons, event organizers told her the topic was too macabre and stuck her on a panel about dogs instead. But after a couple of years of doing that, Zahray was having lunch with a few writers—and one of them, maybe Nancy Pickard but no one quite remembers, brought up a problem she was having with what poison to use for a plot. Zahray told her what to use, explained her background, and, after a little coaxing, Zahray’s poison presentations have been among the most popular seminars on the mystery writing circuit for the last thirty years.
Zahray’s unique combination of interests makes her valuable in a way others with as much, or perhaps even more, academic expertise never could be. Caroline Leavitt, a bestselling author, was at work on a suspense novel about a teenage botany enthusiast. She wanted a plant the child could be growing to in some way help his father with an illness, but that, in the wrong dose, could kill his father.
She was stumped.
“I bought at least five books on poisons, and I tried to Google it,” Leavitt tells me. “And I got nowhere. I put the word out on Facebook, and all these writers said, ‘Oh, you have to call The Poison Lady.”
Intrigued, Leavitt sent Zahray an email—offering to pay a consulting fee. Zahray got back to her saying she didn’t accept payment for her services, but that she had a solution: if the kid grew foxglove, the digitalis the plant contains could help his father treat a heart condition. Then when the relationship turns, he could say, “Let’s give him too much” and kill him.
Plus, Zahray explained, it’s a really pretty plant.
“She solved all my problems,” Leavitt says. “She has the storytelling gene. Some people when I asked about poisons would just be quick to say, ‘That won’t work or that’s not the right poison.’ With her, she just went on a riff—well, you could do this or you could do that. She was looking at poison from the viewpoint of story, whereas everyone else I asked would just give me facts. Facts are not story. And the poison is about character: a kid who loves his father and hates his father. A beautiful plant that helps his father in the right dose and kills his father in the wrong dose. That’s what I was looking for. And I wouldn’t have gotten that without The Poison Lady.”
Zahray has become the genre’s great equalizer: while some writers benefit from a detailed and highly specialized knowledge of the law (John Grisham), psychiatry (Jonathan Kellerman), or internal medicine (Tess Gerritsen), Zahray puts expert poison knowledge within the reach of every writer. As Zahray says, they’re a wonderful device for a mystery because “the beauty of a poison is the killer doesn’t have to be in the room when the victim dies.” Poisons are so perfect for mysteries, in fact, that a detailed knowledge of poisons was once a competitive advantage for a crime writer.
Queen of Crime Agatha Christie’s encyclopedic knowledge of poisons began with her time as a volunteer at a hospital dispensary during World War I, where she served as a nurse and apothecary’s assistant.
“It was while I was working in the dispensary that I first conceived the idea of writing a detective story,” she once wrote. “Since I was surrounded by poisons, perhaps it was natural that death by poisoning should be the method I selected.”
Her first published novel, 1920’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, introduced Hercule Poirot and was the first of the 41 of Christie’s 66 detective novels to feature death by poison. “Poisons are neat and clean and really exciting,” Christie told The New York Times in 1970.
Her knowledge of poisons was famously rigorous. After the chief pharmacist at the University College Hospital in London suggested thallium as a possible poison, she used it to memorable effect in 1961’s The Pale Horse. Her description of the substance’s symptoms was so accurate that in 1977, a London nurse who was reading the novel while caring for an infant with a mysterious illness correctly diagnosed thallium as the cause that had stumped physicians, saving the child’s life.
“Mystery writers have given me so much pleasure all of my life. This is the tiny little thing I can do to give back to them.”
— Luci Zahray
Today, with many career options outside of nursing available to women, crime writers are less likely to have a background in poisons and thus less reliant on personal expertise. Outsourcing is in and demand for Zahray’s services is high.
It’s not easy to be the poisons expert for mystery writers. To make her unpaid lectures and consulting services as valuable as possible, Zahray keeps a full-on garden of poisons at her home.
“I have castor bean, oleander, lily of the valley, foxglove,” she says. “I grow monkshead as an annual. Two years ago I had the loveliest monkshead you could ever imagine. Hemlock, a miniature yew tree that I’m hoping survives the winter, vinca, henbane, datura… those are the biggies.”
She grows them because she needs to be able to take photos of them throughout their life cycles to share with authors who might need descriptions. “They need to know what the plant looks like if they want it to be found in a weed or on the side of the road,” she says. Zahray keeps a collection of more than 150 books on poison, including many from the 19th century, because historical mystery writers need to know not just what we know about poisons now, but what police might have known about them then.
“I also read a lot of safety journals,” she says. “If a safety journal reports an accident, I can turn around and make that a plot for a mystery author.”
But Zahray’s never tried to write her own book, and never will: “I write exactly like I talk and it’s not pretty. It never stays on subject. It’s why I’ve never done a poison book. I cannot write, and I don’t like writing. Writing a Christmas card is a challenge.”
Fair enough, I say—but why not turn this all-consuming hobby that operates exactly like a consulting business, with frequent travel and a library and a garden devoted to the service, into an actual business? She’s almost offended by the suggestion.
“Mystery writers have given me so much pleasure all of my life. This is the tiny little thing I can do to give back to them. I could never charge them.”
Zahray has been advising so many mystery writers for so many years on so many books that it can be hard to pin down details. She has no Twitter page, almost no web presence, no Wikipedia touting her achievements with a list of award-winning books she contributed to; her LinkedIn page describes her only as “pharmacist.” She occasionally speaks at conferences for mystery writers and readers, but for the most part, her email address has spread by word-of-mouth. She’s certainly helped with at least a hundred books, but probably far more, and many dozens of New York Times bestsellers, along with many, many manuscripts in drawers. No publishing contract is needed to retain Zahray’s services. If you email her with a question about poisons for your novel idea, she’ll write back with a detailed suggestion full of citations. If you have follow-ups, she’ll respond quickly. Because Zahray has never charged anyone for her services or sought to trumpet her contributions, there are no records other than the acknowledgments sections of three decades of bestselling mysteries—accessible based on Google Books’ spotty ability to index them.
But send out a few emails to mystery writers with the subject line “Luci Zahray” and the memories pour in.
“If ever I find myself stuck with a character who needs to die without splashing blood, etc., all over the place,” Monica Ferris, author of 19 books in the USA Today-bestselling Needlecraft Mystery series, writes in an email, “I call Luci.”
“Her clear, dry, humorous delivery is fun but also slightly scary, because she’s so brisk and open about how to kill an adult human with, for example, three cigarettes.”
Julia Spencer-Fleming says she owes her career to Zahray, who volunteers as a reader for the St. Martin’s/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Contest. In 2001, Zahray plucked the then-aspiring novelist’s submission out of the slush pile and passed it along to an editor with an enthusiastic note. It was the beginning of a long-running, bestselling series. Having helped get Spencer-Fleming published, Zahray continued to help her with future books.
“A few years ago,” Spencer-Fleming tells me, “I was stuck while planning a novel: I needed to kill someone in a way that would be undetectable in the 1970s, but that could be uncovered with modern testing. I’m usually a guns-or-blunt-instruments kind of gal, but I knew I needed poison for this.” She called Zahray, who of course, came up with the perfect solution—and then read the manuscript to make sure it was authentic.
Today, Zahray lives in Central Texas with her English Hunting Hound, which, she quickly explains, is one of only about 400 specimens found in the United States. That’s just how The Poison Lady is with facts and details. But The Poison lady used to be married.
And when she was going through her divorce, her husband refused to eat any food she wasn’t eating too. “He said, ‘If you’re not gonna eat whatever’s in the refrigerator, feed it to the dog,’ because he knew I wouldn’t hurt the dog.”
“If I wanted to kill him, I’d blow him up. I have more than a few explosive books, so I know how to do that.” She thinks about it a little more. “Plus, he’s a chemist, so people would think it was just a lab accident. No one would suspect me.” She goes back to tending her poison garden.
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