“That parrot,” he said at last. “You know something? It had me completely fooled when I first saw it through the window. I could have sworn it was alive.” “Alas, no longer.” “It’s most terribly clever the way it’s been done,” he said. “It doesn’t look in the least bit dead. Who did it?” “I did.” “You did?” “Of course,” she said. “And have you met my little Basil as well?” She nodded toward the dachshund curled up so comfortably in front of the fire. Billy looked at it. And suddenly, he realized that this animal had all the time been just as silent and motionless as the parrot. He put out a hand and touched it gently on the top of its back. The back was hard and cold, and when he pushed the hair to one side with his fingers, he could see the skin underneath, grayish black and dry and perfectly preserved. “Good gracious me,” he said. “How absolutely fascinating.” He turned away from the dog and stared with deep admiration at the little woman beside him on the sofa. “It must be most awfully difficult to do a thing like that.” “Not in the least,” she said. “I stuff all my little pets myself when they pass away. Will you have another cup of tea?” “No, thank you,” Billy said. The tea tasted faintly of bitter almonds, and he didn’t much care for it. “You did sign the book, didn’t you?” “Oh, yes.” “That’s good. Because later on, if I happen to forget what you were called, then I could always come down here and look it up. I still do that almost every day with Mr. Mulholland and Mr. … Mr. …” “Temple,” Billy said, “Gregory Temple. Excuse my asking, but haven’t there been any other guests here except them in the last two or three years?” Holding her teacup high in one hand, inclining her head slightly to the left, she looked up at him out of the corners of her eyes and gave him another gentle little smile. “No, my dear,” she said. “Only you.” —Roald Dahl, “The Landlady”
We all know that cyanide tastes like almonds. If something is almond-y, and you’re somewhere sinister, well, mister, look out! You’ve been poisoned. I first learned this from the Dahl story cited above–or, more accurately, from the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents based on the story.
But generally, one assumes, writers only know this themselves via hearsay. They know—like the rest of us—that cyanide smells like “bitter almonds.” As one article explains it, “in murder mysteries, the detective usually diagnoses cyanide poisoning by the scent of bitter almonds wafting from the corpse.” In its pure form, cyanide apparently does have an almond-like scent—and this makes sense, since the toxin is found in the wild form of the nut.
But how do we know what it tastes like? The problem with lethal doses of poison is, there aren’t a lot of tasters’ notes. And as any child who’s regretted sipping vanilla extract knows all too well, smell can be deceiving.
In a rather macabre twist, an Indian man answered the question when he took his own life in 2006. In a suicide note, he wrote, “Doctors, potassium cyanide. I have tasted it. It burns the tongue and tastes acrid.”
The doctor who conducted the autopsy declared this was the first document attesting to the taste of the fast-acting poison, which the man had mixed with whiskey.