The Arsenic Milkshake


207 pages
Contains Index
ISBN 0-385-25423-7
DDC 364.1'523'0971





Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

Sarah Robertson is associate editor of the Canadian Book Review Annual.


The Arsenic Milkshake, which evolved from an article Sylvia Barrett
wrote for Equinox, is not a book for the squeamish. Far from the
sanitized Hollywood version, murder, Barrett asserts early on, “is a
horrifying business with sights and smells so ugly they defy the
imagination of the uninitiated.” The forensic pathologists profiled in
her book are variously affiliated with RCMP forensic laboratories, the
B.C. Coroners Service, and the Ontario Centre of Forensic Sciences. For
these individuals, fascination clearly outweighs the revulsion that is
part and parcel of their profession.

This book traces the evolution of forensic science, from British
chemist James Marsh’s discovery of an arsenic-detecting device in 1936
to present-day advances in DNA typing. Canadian cases serve as a
backdrop to the discoveries and refinements that occurred in the
interim—hair and fibre analysis, fingerprinting techniques, serology
and bloodstain-pattern analysis, forensic odontology and entomology, and
bone analysis. Resistance, scepticism, and controversy have accompanied
each advancement in forensic pathology, a profession the author regards
“as much an art as ... a science.”

Barrett also addresses the uneasy alliance between police officers and
forensic scientists, and the role of the latter in the courtroom. She
argues that there is a failure of communication between the legal and
scientific communities that can be remedied only through a
multidisciplinary team approach to crime. In the meantime, as this
slender, elegant volume testifies, science marches inexorably on.


Barrett, Sylvia., “The Arsenic Milkshake,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 30, 2024,