Arts & Ent., BOOK REVIEW

Book Review: “The League of Lady Poisoners,” written and illustrated by Lisa Perrin

The bon-bons look absolutely yummy.

You heard there’s a special creme inside them, so you’ll be sure to have one or five. The pies smell delicious; sweetness and a nip of sour, your favorite. Cake, cookies, pile that plate and forget the diet. As in the new book, “The League of Lady Poisoners,” written and illustrated by Lisa Perrin, some foods are simply to die for.

Poor Lucrezia Borgia.

Born in 1480 and rumored to be the love child of a Pope, it’s said that Lucrezia had a ring she wore everywhere. Supposedly, inside this beautiful piece of jewelry was a hidden compartment that held a Borgia specialty – a poison that, when it benefited Lucrazia or her family (or both), was dumped into her enemy’s food.

Problem is, says Perrin, there’s no hard evidence that Lucrezia did what she’s accused of doing.

History likes to blame women of poisoning their lovers or others, and often for good reason: “most murderers are men,” says Perrin, but “when women commit homicide, they are more likely to choose poison than a man is…” 

Keeping that fact in mind, says Perrin, we can’t lose sight of another truism: centuries ago, when men held all the cards and women had few, if any, rights, women used poison because it was their best, most easily obscured way out of a bad situation.

“If you can look more closely at these women poisoners,” Perrin says, “you might… see their humanity as well…” 

There were, for instance, “professional poisoners” like Locusta, who worked as a hired assassin in first-century Rome, and Giulia Tofana, who helped women escape “abusive relationships.” Just more than a century ago, women of Nagyrev in Hungary partook in a “poisoning epidemic” to escape violent husbands. Sally Bassett provided poison to her granddaughter for use against those who enslaved her. Mary Ann Cotton may’ve been one of England’s most prolific poisoners and in the U.S., Belle Gunness killed and killed and may have gotten away with it…

Here’s something you don’t see very often: a true crime book with a somewhat-lighthearted theme that begs its readers to be kind when considering its subjects. No, “The League of Lady Poisoners” isn’t mawkishly sentimental, but it isn’t sensational, either.

That offers readers a chance to look at old murders in a different light. 

There’s no denying that author-illustrator Lisa Perrin includes some horrible killers in this book, alongside tales of women who found themselves backed into a corner and did what they had to do. Easing the mood, there’s a little silliness tucked here and there, but you’ll mostly see that this book leans on women’s history as much as it does on true crime – and it does so with behind-the-scenes info that invites you feel a surprising sense of compassion. 

That makes “The League of Lady Poisoners” one of the most unusual, but welcome, true crime volumes you’ll ever read, and one of the most thought-provoking. Look for it and you’ll see that this is a tasty little book.

c.2023, Chronicle Books​​​


208 pages