Review: The Husband Poisoner by Tanya Bretherton

Title: The Husband Poisoner: Suburban women who killed in post-World War II Sydney

Author: Tanya Bretherton

Published: 23rd March 2021, Hachette Australia

Status: Read March 2021 courtesy Hachette


My Thoughts:

“Her recipe for murder was simple.”

The use of rat poison has long been a favoured method to commit murder – arsenic, strychnine, phosphide, warfarin, and thallium are common ingredients, as deadly to humans as they are to rodents. Ubiquitous and inexpensive, until relatively recently, deaths caused by rat poison were also difficult to detect, and many a victim went to their grave, often after a slow and painful decline, their cause of death attributed to illness, suicide, or accident.

In post war Sydney, rats were a public health concern, and most households would have kept, and used, some sort of rat poison. Thallium – a colourless, odourless, and tasteless substance, was used in several brands of rat poison from around the 1920’s, and it was the main ingredient in a product called Thall-Rat which was available for sale in Australia.

In The Husband Poisoner, Tanya Bretherton focuses largely on two women who were found guilty of administering Thall-Rat to commit murder in the post World War II period. Yvonne Fletcher killed both her first and second husbands by regularly dosing them with Thall-Rat, while Caroline Grills poisoned several family members. All of their victims suffered in agony, with the toxin causing symptoms that ranged from severe muscle pain to blindness, and even madness. Their stories are tragic, yet fascinating and well told by Bretherton who primarily writes in a narrative style, humanising both the victims, and their murderers.

In telling these stories, Bretherton also explores the social context of the period, and the circumstances which gave rise to a spree of poisonings. Fletcher and Grills weren’t the only ones to seize on thallium as a means for murder, between March 1952 and April 1953, ten deaths and forty-six hospital admissions were attributed to thallium, leading to the newly established Poisons Advisory Commitee amending the Poisons Act in 1953, regulating its sale.

It seems somewhat incongruous that a book about poisoning also includes recipes for pikelets, jam roll-poly, roast pork, and potato and bacon pie, among others, but it was through the provision of banal family meals, sweet treats, or soothing hot drinks, that many victims were poisoned. The use of rat-killer as a murder weapon is a decidedly domestic crime, and the perpetrator is almost always a member of the same family.

I was less interested in the tangent Bretherton followed with regards to the two detectives, Fergusson and Krahe, who investigated both Fletcher and Grills. Though interesting men, their character deficits didn’t seem particularly relevant to the subject at hand.

Well researched and written, The Husband Poisoner is a fascinating and macabrely entertaining read and will appeal to those who enjoy the genres of true crime and history.


Available from Hachette Australia

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10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Verushka, an editor (@SydneyEditor1)
    Mar 10, 2021 @ 20:55:37

    Macabre it right! I am amused it has receipes in among the true crime-ness of it!

    Liked by 1 person


  2. Jennifer
    Mar 11, 2021 @ 10:29:31

    Thanks, Shelleyrae, straight on my list!

    Liked by 1 person


  3. Susan
    Mar 11, 2021 @ 12:38:05

    This one definitely sounds intriguing!


    Liked by 1 person


  4. Heather @ Random Redheaded Ramblings
    Mar 12, 2021 @ 07:27:26

    I do love a bit of true crime!

    Liked by 1 person


  5. Mystica
    Mar 13, 2021 @ 00:58:20

    Gruesome with the receipe bit!!

    Liked by 1 person


  6. Tracey (Carpe Librum)
    Mar 14, 2021 @ 22:55:47

    Macabrely entertaining? Love it!

    Liked by 1 person


  7. Trackback: It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? #SundayPost #SundaySalon | book'd out
  8. Trackback: ‘The Husband Poisoner’ by Tanya Bretherton – Reading Matters
  9. Trackback: Non-Fiction (General) Round Up: March 2021 | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog
  10. Trackback: History Memoir and Biography Round Up: March 2021 | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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