Oxalic Acid

I’ve made a few notes about parts of Death in High Heels that couldn’t be squeezed into my main post. All of them, it transpires, are about oxalic acid.

[No spoilers here, except a few facts about Death in High Heels. But nothing you wouldn’t find on the back cover.]

The acid that crops up most often in mystery stories is undoubtedly prussic acid. It’s easy to see why: it’s incredibly toxic, so you don’t need to fuss with dosages; it’s relatively easy to obtain and synthesise, so your murderer doesn’t need to have a background in chemistry; it’s found in the stones of a lot of fruits, which makes for some nice imagery; it smells, memorably, of ‘bitter almonds’. An interesting aside – whether you can smell the almond smell is genetically determined.  A very large number of people can’t smell it. Has this ever come up, even in passing, in a mystery? The smell is pretty much ubiquitous in Golden Age Mysteries and beyond. And, of course, it has that wonderfully evocative name, which is scientific but not dauntingly so. The more scientific name is hydrogen cyanide, and I think saying prussic acid would sound very dated now (but I’m not sure).

But oxalic acid seems just as useful, although I’ve not seen in anywhere other than Death in High Heels. It’s also highly toxic, and will wreck your kidneys in short order, while its corrosive properties mean that ingestion will quickly damage your throat – handy for victims who you want to utter one last cryptic message! It’s found most commonly in the leaves of rhubarb, so there’s plenty of natural imagery available if you don’t want to go down the science route. If you do, the official nomenclature has it as ethanedioic acid, but it doesn’t seem as though ‘oxalic acid’ is archaic in the same way that ‘prussic acid’ is. I think it sounds even better, but I’m a sucker for an X.

In Brand’s book the shop girls buy some from a local chemists to clean a hat. There’s some good stuff at the beginning about the general bureaucracy associated with chemists shops (when did they stop having poison registers, I wonder?) and it’s interesting that the chemist lets them have it without signing because he recognises them and it’s “not very dangerous”. I find all these sorts of details fascinating.

[I’m assuming this is accurate, and not just a convenient way of making the mystery work. It’s only stated that Brand got the idea for the book while working in a shop with a woman she disliked, but I get the impression that a lot of the details in the book have been drawn from her life. I’d be surprised to learn that she’d never bought any oxalic acid herself.]

There is literally no good way to segue to my second point. So…. BAM!

I talked in my review about some weak spots in Brand’s writing. Here’s one that tripped me up in an interesting way:

In an early scene, Inspector Charlesworth has gone to the morgue to find out the post mortem results from the police doctor, who during their conversation says this:

“Yes, poor kid, she had enough oxalic acid in her to slay an ox.”

To my ear that sounds particularly clumsy. The repetition of “ox” stands out, but in a way that seems odd and unintentional (even though I expect it was intentional). There’s no good way to actually speak that dialogue and put the stress in the right place.

I don’t want to harp on about it. It’s hardly a crime against writing and it makes perfect sense as written. I noticed it, it jarred a bit, I made a note and carried on. But wondering how best to fix it provided a nice mini-exercise later.

Something like this seems simplest:

“Yes, poor kid, she had enough oxalic acid in her to slay an actual ox.”

Just fixing the rhythm of it with a little emphasising word which also clarifies that the repetition is intentional.

Or perhaps:

“Yes, poor kid, she had enough oxalic acid in her to slay…”

“An ox?” suggested Charlesworth, innocently.

“Well, precisely.”

Going overboard, perhaps, but showing the kind of joke Charlesworth is prepared to make among colleagues in private.

Or even:

“Yes, poor kid, she had enough oxalic acid in her to slay an elephant.”

Fixing it the other way by removing the repetition entirely.

I can think of a few more, but you get the idea. And there are other things about the sentence I’d change, if I was actually doing an edit. (I don’t like “slay”, here, for example. Even for the 40s that sounds archaic.) But that’s enough for now. I do find it helpful to do this sort of thing from time to time, though.

I think I’ve been thinking so much about this because I’ve recently been editing a first draft of a book, a process which has consisted mostly of trimming. Almost every writing guide you’ll come across will advise scouring your work and ruthlessly cutting out any and all unnecessary words. It’s good advice – it’s easy to become obsessed with qualifying adverbs which seem to be doing useful clarification work but which are really just bogging things down. But some of the guides take an almost sadistic glee in calling for deep, deep cuts. And the stated aim is almost always to convey information as efficiently as possible, with hardly any thought for euphony. And there’s never a warning about over-cutting.

But this example shows (perhaps; who knows how Brand came to write that sentence) that it is possible to get carried away, and that words can serve a purpose in prose beyond what meaning they add to the sentence. Imagine that Brand started with my first example in her first draft. The word ‘actual’ seems a perfect candidate for pruning – the sentence makes just as much sense without it – but leaving it in produces a much more rhythmic sentence. And what’s doubly interesting (to me) is that it doesn’t really matter what word you put there. You just need something with a few syllables. I think it’s easy to get carried away chopping superfluous adjectives and adverbs and forget that some of them do serve a purpose, just not one that has anything to do with meaning.

Well, that was a weird aside. Next time I’ll be back talking about grisly murders!

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