"The cheerleader waves her cyanide wand
There's a smell of peach blossom and bitter almond..."
Occasionally in Crime and Punishment stories
, a person who has died suddenly and unexpectedly will have been the victim of cyanide poisoning.
The first, best, and only symptom of cyanide poisoning in television is that it leaves the smell of bitter almonds
on the victim. Someone will sniff the body, and announce that they smell bitter almonds
, and therefore the cause of death is cyanide poisoning. Anyone can do this, even people with no medical or law enforcement training recognize the smell of bitter almonds as a sure sign of cyanide poisoning.
In the real world, while most people can smell cyanide (about one in four are genetically predisposed not to), hydrogen cyanide is often undetectable until 600 PPB, a rather high and dangerous concentration. Also, bitter almonds being uncommon and smelling very different from regular (sweet) almonds, most people would not know what they smelled like anyway. But in the television world, everyone can identify cyanide by smell.
One interesting thing about this trope is that it is self-reinforcing;
the trope itself has raised public awareness such that it is increasingly likely that even a layperson would recognize the significance of the smell if he or she was physically able to detect it. (However, many laypeople, if not most, don't understand the difference between bitter and sweet almonds.)
Bitter almonds smell like cyanide because they contain cyanide
, but sweet almonds smell primarily of benzaldehyde (which most people associate with the aroma of cherries... almond and cherry flavoring extracts rather famously smell nearly identical). If it's clear that a character who should know better confuses the smell of cyanide or bitter almonds with the smell of sweet almonds, almond extract, or "burnt almonds", then the writer hasn't bothered to fact check. It's also oddly uncommon for fictional characters to identify the smell as being associated with arsenic.
Not related to sour grapes
As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.
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- In The Renegades, Larxene tries to buy cyanide while staying in London, but Zexion convinces the druggist to lie and give her almond oil instead. Later, after the Nobodies have been kicked out of the hotel, the remaining guests are all pleasantly surprised by the almond-flavored porridge they're given for breakfast the next morning.
- Miss Marple as portrayed by Margaret Rutherford detects the presence of cyanide in Murder Most Foul because of the smell. In the fourth movie (Murder Ahoy!), she excludes it because the snuff she suspects someone was poisoned with lacks it.
- In the film The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane Rynn describes a substance that her dying father had given her to put in her mother's tea if she ever came around trying to meddle to "calm her down". It turns out to be cyanide, and it kills her, but while drinking the tea she commented that it tasted of almonds. This is the clue in the final scene between Rynn and her lecherous neighbor as to which one truly received the poisoned cup of tea.
- How Holmes identifies the toxic gas generator in the 2009 Sherlock Holmes film.
- A somewhat more realistic example in the Soviet The Film of the Book And Then There Were None. After a man gulps a shot of whiskey and immediately drops dead, the doctor smears some of the leftover drinks on his palms, rubs them a bit and then sniffs, detecting a scent of cyanide.
- Used to the advantage of a character in Stephen R. Lawhead's Empyrion duology, who carries canisters that unleash the scent of bitter almonds so that she can scare off guards with her "cyanide gas".
- In the Stephen King poem Paranoid: A Chant, the main character speaks of ". . . the yellow taste of mustard / to mask the bitter odor of almonds." Considering the title, you might take that with a grain of (arsenic-laced) salt.
- Agatha Christie (maybe the tropemaker) herself uses this.
- An attempted aversion occurs in Patricia Cornwell's Scarpetta series. In "Cause of Death," Dr. Scarpetta is the only one to smell bitter almonds in a dead diver's breathing equipment. In monologue, Scarpetta claims that the ability to smell cyanide is a recessive trait, shared by only 20% or so of the population. The problem is, she's got it backwards - it's 20% of the population that can't smell cyanide.
- In one of Roald Dahl's short stories, "The Landlady", the protagonist is drinking tea with his weird old landlady. He declines another cup because it "tasted faintly of bitter almonds and he did not care for it".
- In the Assassins' Guild Yearbook, prospective assassins are cautioned not to take an almond slice when visiting the Headmaster's office.
- In Night Watch, Lord Winder's food taster with Acquired Poison Immunity initially thinks that a slice of cake is poisoned because of the almonds in it.
- Raymond Chandler:
- Nevada Gas.
- The Big Sleep, wherein a side character is poisoned with cyanide in whisky and dies in the span of a single page. Notably, Marlowe calls the cyanide not because of the smell — which is noted — but because the victim vomited.
- "Bitter Almonds" is the title of a Montague Egg mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers. The story concerns an elderly man who was believed to have been poisoned by his nephew after threatening to disinherit him. Mr. Egg, a traveling salesman for a fine-wines-and-spirits brokerage, realizes the true story thanks to his encyclopedic knowledge of liquors. The "victim", after the argument with his nephew, poured himself a glass of almond liqueur from a bottle that had stood unopened in his cabinet for twenty years. The problem with that particular brand of liqueur is that its flavoring contained bitter almond oil; the stuff had risen to the top of the bottle and concentrated, and so the glass the old man poured himself contained a lethal dose of cyanide. And if this sounds outlandish to you, there is at least one true story of a person accidentally killing themselves in this way which Sayers had heard about.
- The non-fiction book Murder Ink (the paperback version) by Dilys Winn included its own murder mystery with various clues among the pages. The deceased is dead of cyanide poisoning via his afternoon tea. The inside cover has a scratch & sniff tea bag — smelling distinctly of sweet almonds.
- In a variant, vampire Jack Fleming of is injected with cyanide in A Chill In The Blood, and Doc identifies the poison by smelling the needle. He doesn't specify what it smelled like, but Jack's undead metabolism lets him sweat blood until it's all out of his system, and the blood-sweat is described as smelling like almonds mixed with rust and raw meat (ick).
- Used twice in the Danish book Gargoylens Gåde ('Riddle of the Gargoyle'). A group of Amateur Sleuths, clearly based on the real-life Vidocq Society, have named themselves 'The Coffee Tastes Like Bitter Almonds' in reference to this trope (and just for dark irony, since they usually meet over coffee). While visiting said club, the Kid Detective main character realizes that an almond cake they're set to share has been poisoned with cyanide because, specifically, it smells like BITTER almonds, rather than ordinary, sweet almonds. Which sparks the interesting question of which the murder-obsessed mystery-freaks poisoned the cake... especially since they all gave excuses not to eat, varying from dieting to almond-allergies to diabetes. (Except for ONE of them, who was also the one to cut the cake, thus making it possible that he specifically picked out an un-poisoned piece for himself.)
- In The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls, Madame Mournigton realizes that Dr. Stockill killed her daughter, Violet, after recognizing the scent of almond (the only thing she is cabable of smelling) on recently-killed Christelle's breath.
- Averted in Requiem for a Mezzo by Carola Dunn. When the victim drops dead on stage three out of four people can smell bitter almonds, so they assume cyanide poisoning. (The fourth is a doctor, who states that he cannot smell cyanide.) However the liqueur the victim was drinking smelled of almonds anyway and it does turn out to be something else that killed her.
Live Action TV
- In the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation episode "Iced", Doc Robbins explains that not everyone can smell cyanide and points out that skin discoloration is a more obvious symptom. To illustrate that point, Hodges (who has this ability) walks in and performs the "test" with a deliberately silly ceremony. This may be the first acknowledgment of this fact in television. Greg apparently also has the ability, and uses it in a later ep.
- In Doctor Who, "The Unicorn and the Wasp", the Doctor is poisoned and Agatha Christie identifies the poison as cyanide this way (and Title Drops her book Sparkling Cyanide, as part of a Running Gag).
- Parodied in The Goodies episode "Daylight Robbery on the Orient Express" where one of the characters detects the distinctive tang of bitter almonds, leading him to declare that "This arsenic has been poisoned!"
- In an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., as part of a counterintelligence scam, Ilya fakes his suicide by drinking "cyanide", leaving behind the scent of bitter almonds on his "corpse".
- On NCIS Abby is almost poisoned in her lab by a piece of evidence from a crime scene that is tainted with cyanide. She can smell the bitter almond; McGee can't, but once she mentions cyanide he drags her out of the lab. The crime scene was actually faked and the tainted evidence planted in an attempt to kill Abby, who is a forensics witness in a trial taking place during the episode.*). For all its frequent research screw-ups, NCIS seemingly got the Chemistry right that time.
- In the Pushing Daisies episode "Bitches", a character mistakes cyanide for spoiled almond-flavored cream in his coffee.
- In the Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode "Poison", Det. Goren (known for his sniffer) identifies the smell of almonds as cyanide.
- Used to identify a poisoning attempt on Pete Thorton, by the titular hero of MacGyver, who then made use of chemicals from a nearby photography store to create an antidote.
- The Hustle episode "Whittaker Our Way Out" contains a subversion. Mickey smells almonds (presumably sweet) on fellow conman JW 3 who is supposed to be Faking the Dead which causes him to abandon the proceeds of the con and clear the team out of the building, believing the man actually dead and the police on their way. It's only after Mickey notices another, much less relevant discrepancy that he realizes that JW 3 is alive and absconding with the money.
- In the season 2 Andromeda episode "In Heaven Now Are Three", Dylan recognizes an incense burner as a cyanide death trap due to its smell.
- Played straight with Dr. Parish on Castle in the episode "Law & Murder". However, she uses more advanced technology than her nose as well.
- Referenced in Genesis's "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway":
The cheerleader waves her cyanide wand
There's a smell of peach blossom and bitter almond
- Kate Bush's "Coffee Homeground," which seems to resemble the Roald Dahl story "The Landlady," has the singer-as-protagonist rejecting kindly offers of tea and sweets out of a conviction that it's a plot against them:
Offer me a chocolate,
No thank you, spoil my diet, know your game!
But tell me just how come they smell of bitter almonds?
It's a no-no to your coffee homeground.
- In the "A Midwinter's Murder" episode of Red Panda Adventures, the Red Panda detects a poison via this trope. He identifies the smell as indicating arsenic and cites "burnt almonds"...
- Parodied in an episode of The Burkiss Way where a detective smells cyanide and concludes that the victim must have been poisoned with bitter almonds.
- Whodunnit comedy Register Here subverts this trope. Inspector Robin Holmes detects a smell of burnt almonds (which may have been an honest mistake on the playwright's part) in a victim's coffee cup. The victim actually invoked this trope and put almond extract in his coffee and faked his death to remove himself from the investigation.
- In Kingdom Of Loathing, there's a Dia De Los Muertos-themed item called the "marzipan skull" (no, not that Marzipan), which tastes of almonds... bitter almonds. It's death-themed and it poisons the user in addition to giving them a sugar rush.
- In this Stealth Parody video satirizing Fundamentalist Christianity, Edward Current remarks that the cyanide that he drinks to prove that God exists "tastes like almonds".
- An alien version occurs in Men In Black: The Series. Jay, disguised as an alien bodyguard, tests a meal which he describes as tasting of cashews. Kay is quick to inform him that such a taste is indicative of alien poison. Jay is quick to freak out... until Kay adds that it doesn't affect humans.
- In one episode of King of the Hill, Cotton Hill claims his ex-wife tried to kill him with a poisoned baked chicken, which according to her was simply Chicken Almondine (chicken with almonds). Cotton retorts that it was cyanide.
- In an episode of Daria, Kevin has been found murdered and Jane can tell immediately that his sandwich smells of cyanide—justified since she poisoned him. In a Flashback, Kevin stumbles across the hall after being poisoned while muttering "I told mom, no almonds". It was All Just a Dream.
- This is truth in television, from time to time. True Crime writers lap up the relatively few cases where some hospital worker has detected the scent and (this being the real world) been inspired to have proper lab tests done.
- Chemical weapons training in the U.S. Army includes the warning sign that certain chemical weapons (phosgene) smell like "new mown hay", which can be confusing to people born and raised in urbanized areas.
- An interesting version by scam artist Louis Enricht- in 1916 he claimed to have invented a chemical that, when diluted in water, could replace gasoline. During demonstrations of his product, many noted the strong smell of almonds, and he often warned the reporters that the chemical was poisonous. As it later turned out, the (fake) miracle fuel had cyanide as an ingredient, solely so that the smell would mask the real chemicals (acetone and acetylene, which would make a gas engine work, but would also corrode it very quickly)
- The news coverage of The Chicago Tylenol Murders warned viewers not to take Tylenol pills if they smelled like almonds.
- Eyewitnesses reported smelling bitter almonds around Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun's corpses. Whether the two took such a high cyanide dose as to produce this smell, or if the eyewitnesses imagined it because that was what they expected is unclear.
- Infamous Mafia hitman Richard "The Iceman" Kuklinski killed several people by giving them hamburgers with mustard that he had mixed with cyanide; he noted that "even if he tastes it, he's already dead from it."
- In April of 1997, a man named John Powell died at Drake Memorial Hospital in Cincinnati of unknown causes. The coroner detected a whiff of bitter almonds. Further tests confirmed murder. The investigation quickly revealed that one of the hospital orderlies, Donald Harvey, had been around so many patients who died that he'd been nicknamed "The Angel of Death". Eventually Harvey was convicted of 24 murders, but claimed as many as 70, mostly of hospital patients but including a couple of people Harvey knew outside of his work.