NORMAN BISSET's work on the curative properties of plants also made him an expert on their darker side, writes Gillian Linscott.
He was both generous and ingenious in sharing that knowledge with crime writers. A lecture he gave to the Crime Writers' Association was all the more impressive because it was not rooted in the laboratory. He had met these poisonous plants on their home ground in jungles and forests throughout the world, even tried out the blowpipes. His knowledge covered a wide time-range as well as most parts of the globe. He had written on arrow poisons of ancient India and could quote 4,000-year-old examples from Egyptian tombs.
Sensibly, he would check a writer's bona fides with the publisher, then, assured that murderous intentions were theoretical and not practical, throw himself happily into the business of plotting. He would sit over a Chinese meal, expertly rolling pancakes with chopsticks and comparing the suitablity of various poisons with an enthusiasm that made people at neighbouring tables pause nervously and give their forkfuls a second glance.
Was it really necessary to poison an African explorer with a South American substance like curare? Of course, if the plot demanded it, he did know of a hunting tribe in North Eastern Rwanda which, most unusually, employed a curarising poison. But what he would recommend in the circumstances would be Strophanthus hispidus - a much more appropriate poison, especially since a colleague of Dr Livingstone nearly poisoned himself with it accidentally when he got some on his toothbrush. Inevitably, he had chapter and verse for the toothbrush story as well.
His university study was a kind of toxicologist wizard's cave. He would bowl a stoppered gourd of curare across his desk to illustrate a point, or go hunting among shelves and cupboards for the poisoned arrows he was sure he had put somewhere. A writer would emerge from these sessions grateful and relieved that such a weight of deadly expertise should be allied to such a modest and genial personality.