Posted by Kate Flora
Texas pharmacist Luci Zahray is a passionate mystery reader who generously gives up several weekends a year to attend conferences and educated writers about the dangerous potential of common household drugs and plant poisons. I caught up with Luci at the New England Crimebake this past weekend, where she graciously agreed to answer some questions.
Kate Flora: Luci, you’ve become an invaluable resource to mystery writers everywhere through your talks on common household drugs and plant poisons. How did you get started on doing this?
Luci: Well, I grew up in central Texas and had never seen snow until I took a job and moved to Holland, Michigan and there was a lot of snow. Still snow in May. I was still shell-shocked when the Malice Domestic mystery conference came around and I talked a friend into going with me. I wrote to the conference organizers, asking how I could help. I offered to do a talk on poisons but they told me no one would want to hear about how to kill people, so I did other volunteer things instead and they put me on a dog panel. And later they let me read malice manuscripts.
Kate Flora: Amazing. So when did you start doing your poison talks?
Luci: Bouchercon in St. Paul was my first poison conference. That was in 1996. By then I had made friends with a lot of authors and the person setting up the panels invited me to speak. It was a few years later, at Magna cum Mystery, that someone dubbed me the Poison Lady. People were beginning to be interested in my talk and asking for it. Then, after ten years in Michigan, I moved back to Texas. I called the Dallas Speakers Bureau to offer my expertise. I told them this is what I do and this is what I talk about and they told me that no one would want to hear about that. I had to start again from scratch. Mostly people learn hear about me and invite me to speak by word of mouth.
When I first moved to Michigan, I invited someone over for dinner and I made blackened redfish and my guest thought I was trying to poison her and wanted to go to the hospital. Well, that made me so mad that for a while, I had a special cabinet and I stored all my poisons in the kitchen. They look just like spices.
Kate Flora: Do you ever get in trouble with your employers because of these talks you give?
Luci: I always tell my employers and the people I work with what I do, so there are no surprises. I’ve only gotten into trouble maybe three times. One of them was…I’m kind of bad about throw away lines..somebody asked me once, while I was still on stage, how I’d kill someone without getting caught. And I said, I’d put mercury on top of a light bulb near the chair where they sat and it would evaporate and they’d get organic brain syndrome—Mad Hatter’s Disease. Once I was being interviewed for a newspaper article in Indianapolis, and as she was leaving, she said something about having all the poisons in the house and I said “Oh, there are no dead bodies in my back yard.” And my boss was not happy about that. And the other time I got into trouble was when we were talking about biological and chemical warfare, and I said—and this is true—that you don’t want to kill a lot of people, you want to incapacitate a lot of people because if they’re dead, the soldiers can fight on, but if they’re wounded, people have to care for them and you lose a lot of resources. And that information is right there in combat training manuals. But it doesn’t sound good to say it.
Kate Flora: Where do you get your ideas for your talks and your information about poisons?
Luci: As a pharmacist, I read a lot of safety journals such as the Journal of Toxicology, Industrial Hygiene, industrial safety magazines, American Chemist, Chemistry News, etc. Because if it happens in real life, it can easily be turned around and made plausible for a mystery writer. There are a lot of ways to kill someone and get away with it, but that won’t work in a book because the book won’t go anywhere. The safety journals will tell you how something was found and that’s another way to help a writer.
Kate Flora: So we could read some of these things? Would we understand them?
Luci: You might not understand the technical stuff, but all of the safety stuff is pretty much put in plain language.
Kate Flora: So it’s all out there? It’s mostly a question of knowing where to look?
Kate Flora: From the first talk I ever heard you give—and I’ve heard you give many—you always lead off with Tylenol. Why is that?
Luci: Because it’s pretty much the most dangerous drug in anybody’s house. It’s not necessarily the most toxic but it’s the most dangerous because it has this widespread perception of safety, and because it is a hidden ingredient in so many things, so that you don’t realize that you’re overdosing yourself.
Kate Flora: You’ve lectured about a lot of different kinds of poisons. The first talks I heard you give were about Tylenol and nicotine. Lately you’ve been talking about plant poisons. Are you a gardener?
Kate Flora: What do you have in your garden?
Luci: I have oleander.
Kate Flora: Which you can grow in Texas. Oleander is a really deadly poison, isn’t it?
Luci: Very. Seven leaves to kill a horse, three to kill a man. All parts of the plant, fresh or dead…even the smoke from burning the plant, are toxic. And that’s not true of all plants. I have Lily of the Valley. Monkshood, aconite, which is a very beautiful plant. Datura, which, according to the literature, can cause hallucinations lasting up to three weeks.
Kate Flora: How would you use something like datura?
Luci: I’d make it into a tea, but you could also chop it up and put it in a cigarette. One of the problems with this plant is that it’s making its way into the party scene, so kids are using it.
Kate Flora: Anything else?
Luci: Autumn crocus. Nicotine.
Kate Flora: And what kinds of questions do mystery writers tend to ask you about poisons?
Luci: People are always asking me for something that will cause instant death. And I think that’s not very useful because if death is instantaneous, then you’re going to be standing right there. So I tell them that I think it’s a lot more useful to look for poisons that can kill in three days, or three weeks or three years. That’s much more useful for a mystery.
Kate Flora: So what’s going to be the one that kills over three years?
Luci: Lead. Mercury. Cadmium. Nickel. Copper. The heavy metals. Most of these you’re going to have dissolve them in an acidic solution and give them over time. Or they’re particularly dangerous if they’re burned in some way.
Kate Flora: Along with your talks to writers about poisons, you also read every year for the Malice Domestic mystery contest, is that right?
Luci: I’ve got twelve manuscripts waiting for me at home. It’s one of the things I do to give back to this community which has given me so much pleasure.
Kate Flora: Thank you so much, Luci. I’m really looking forward to you talk today. And by the way, my story in the Deadfall anthology? It was absolutely inspired by one of your talks. How many books do you suppose there are out there which you have influenced?
Luci: I know of about sixty, although not all of them involve poisons. Four of them are Malice winners. I have maybe ten or twelve that didn’t win malice who went on to get published. I have them all together on a shelf. In fact, I’ve got them double shelved, but I’m going to have to start another shelf soon.
Luci: I play with my new puppy. He’s a harrier and his name is Whimsey.
Kate Flora: After Lord Peter?
Luci (smiling): Of course. And when I take him for a walk and he’s out there running circles around me, I just say I’m indulging my whimsey.