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Bitter Almonds

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"The cheerleader waves her cyanide wand
There's a smell of peach blossom and bitter almond..."
Genesis, "Broadway Melody of 1974".

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 they were 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 (mainly because almond is actually a close relative of cherries, peaches and apricots). All these aromas are mainly caused by a glicoside called amygdalin (from the Greek "Amygdalon", "almond"), which in broken seeds of the prune family fruits, including the almonds is enzymatically dissociated to the aforementioned benzaldehyde and hydrogen cyanide — whose smells are, curiously, quite similar.

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. Related to Smells of Death.

As this is a Death Trope, unmarked spoilers abound. Beware.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Case Closed:
    • In manga file #757, Conan points out that there's an element of Fingertip Drug Analysis to this: he smells an almond scent coming from a corpse's lips, but cautions one of the others on the scene against sniffing because he's an "amateur".
      Conan: The almond scent is the smell of gas that results from the potassium cyanide reacting with the acid from her gastric fluids!! If you breathe in too much of it, you'll die!!
      Everybody Else: ...
      Conan: [sweatdrop] At least, that's what they said in the detective drama...
    He then goes on to point out the difference between the smell of bitter and sweet almonds.
    • Earlier in the manga, when there is a murder in school play Heiji points out other symptoms of cyanide poisoning and in the end the smell of almond without even being close enough to the corpse to really smell it.
  • A case in Detective School Q had Kyu detect the Bitter Almond smell in a bottle of Salad Dressing. The anime version of this case has Kyu sniffing the victim's mouth first and then taste a whiskey bottle's mouth before declaring it as cyanide.
  • One episode of Golgo 13 plays with this. Golgo's targets smell almonds in the air, and assume he has put cyanide gas in the ventilation system. It was actually just a harmless almond-scented spray, which he used so that his targets would flee the secured room they were hiding in for the dubious safety of an area with fresh air that he had a clear line of fire to.

    Comic Books 
  • Appeared in a Batman comic about Alfred's days working as a British agent; a poisoner made almond tarts to cover up the smell of the cyanide.
  • Surprisingly Averted in Diabolik: the title character's favourite poison is cyanide, but almond taste was never mentioned. Justified as he normally administers it as gas or by injection, with the two times it was ingested being two showing-off in which it wouldn't have been noticed (in a capsule he hid in the fake tooth of his victim and on the pages of a speech given by a journalist with the habit of licking his finger before turning page).
  • Parodied in a Mike Mist Minute Mystery page published in the second issue of First Comics E-Man. Mike stops his client from eating a Winkies snack because of the bitter almond smell, but it turns out that it was just Winkies's new bitter almond flavored creme filling.
  • Subverted in a Spider-Man comic in which Aunt May bakes some cookies for the Chameleon, who disguised himself as Peter and planned to kill her. He mentions how he loves the slight almond taste, and Aunt May tells him that it came from the poison she laced them with since she figured out that he was an impostor. After Spidey comes to the rescue a tad too late and finds the Chameleon unconscious, Aunt May reveals that she only mixed sleeping pills in them and that she added almond extract just to screw with him. Strangely, the poison she claimed was in the cookies was arsenic, not cyanide.

  • In The Renegades, Larxene tries to buy cyanide while staying in London,note  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.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • 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.
  • In The King's Man, the attempt to poison Rasputin involves a bakewell tart, a British pastry that is traditionally covered in almonds, to mask the scent of cyanide. Unfortunately, Rasputin suspects cyanide poisoning the moment he sees the tart specifically because of the almonds.
  • 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. (Rynn initially thinks it's because of the almond biscuits) This is the clue in the final scene between Rynn and her lecherous pedophile neighbor as to which one truly received the poisoned cup of tea. (This time, Rynn served the almond biscuits on purpose.)
  • Miss Marple as portrayed by Margaret Rutherford:
    • In Murder Most Foul, Miss Marple detects the presence of cyanide because of the smell.
    • In Murder Ahoy!, she excludes it because the snuff she suspects someone was poisoned with lacks the smell.
  • How Holmes identifies the toxic gas generator in Sherlock Holmes (2009).
    Holmes: Note the blue discoloration, the faint smell of bitter almonds.
  • In Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear, Holmes tells Captain Simpson that someone is trying to poison and hands him his brandy glass and tells him to smell it. Simpson sniffs the glass and detects the odour of bitter almonds. However, Holmes later reveals to Watson that he spiked Simpson's brandy with almonds to see his reaction to someone trying to poison him.

  • 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.
  • 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 only because of the smell — which is noted — but because the victim vomited.
  • Late in The Bishop Murder Case, Vance and Sergeant Heath break into an attic. Among other evidence, they find a room with chemistry equipment set up, and a scent of bitter almonds in the air. Yep, you guessed it, the murderer was making his own cyanide.
  • 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).
  • Agatha Christie (maybe the tropemaker) herself uses this. And quite justified, seeing as she worked in pharmacies during World Wars I and II. In Sparkling Cyanide, a wife and later a husband die by spiked champagne.
  • Sophronia muses early in Curtsies & Conspiracies that while she's quite fond of almond cake, she swore off eating it after her first cyanide lesson because it would be impossible to tell the scent of almond cake from the scent of cyanide-laced cake.
  • Discworld:
    • 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.
  • 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".
  • 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.)
  • A German Requiem: Bernie Gunther detects the smell of almonds from the last dying breath of Arthur Nebe, after Nebe bit down on the cyanide capsule that Bernie hid in a strudel.
  • 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".
  • Love in the Time of Cholera opens with the sentence "It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love." in reference to a suicide by cyanide.
  • "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.
  • Outlander: When Claire tries unsuccessfully to resuscitate Arthur Duncan by giving him CPR, her lips tingle and faintly taste of bitter almonds afterwards, cluing her into the fact that Duncan has been poisoned by his wife, Geillis.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Edward Hyde kills himself with cyanide, which Gabriel Utterson identifies by the smell of bitter almonds.
  • Pops up in one of the Tsar Gorokh's Detective Agency novels, when people are found dead during meals.
  • October Daye: At one point during Toby and Tybalt's date in "No Sooner Met", the waiter brings them a piece of chocolate cake on the house. Toby goes to take the first bite - and stops, because she smells someone's magical signature on the cake. She asks Tybalt to smell it, and while he can't smell the magic, he can smell bitter almonds, which means it's been dosed with cyanide.
  • Hit List by Lawrence Block. Dot assassinates a woman by swopping one of the chocolates in a tray she offers him with a chocolate she's injected with poison. She has to eat the chocolate she took for appearances and briefly worries that she might be eating the wrong chocolate. There's a nut inside and Dot tells Keller afterwards that as she bit down on it, she tasted bitter almonds even though cyanide wasn't the poison she used.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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.
  • In And Then There Were None (2015), Anthony Marston dies suddenly and violently during dinner after having a drink. Later, while inspecting his body to determine the possible cause, Blore detects a smell of bitter almonds from his mouth, even asking Lombard to confirm the smell's presence, and they both speculate he was murdered by cyanide poisoning.
  • Played straight with Dr. Parish on Castle in the episode "Law & Murder". However, she uses more advanced technology than her nose as well.
  • In the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Hilda successfully murders a witch rival of her sister Zelda by poisoning her with cyanide and using almond biscuits to cover the smell.
  • In the CSI 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.
  • Death in Paradise:
    • In "One for the Road", Humphrey smells bitter almonds on the murdered governor and announces she has been poisoned with cyanide.
    • In "A Murder in Portrait", Jack comments on the strong smell of almonds on the Victim of the Week and immediately comes to the conclusion that she was poisoned with cyanide. Which, while true, also turns out to be a Red Herring.
  • Diagnosis: Murder has an episode where Mark identifies a glass of wine as being laced with cyanide by its aroma of almonds.
  • Doc Martin: Not actually cyanide, but Martin manages to identify the smell of Copper Arsenite, which is giving a patient of the week Arsenic poisoning via a (unintentional) Napoleon's Wallpaper plot.
  • Doctor Who: In "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). Arguably justified; having worked in an army hospital pharmacy full of drugs and poisons during the First World War, she was likely quite familiar with the smell.
  • The Glades: In "Exposed", Carlos identifies that the victims have been poisoned with cyanide by the smell of almonds on their breath. Oddly, either the character or the actor says that he detects the smell of "burnt almonds" rather than "bitter".
  • 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!"
  • The Hustle episode "Whittaker Our Way Out" contains a subversion. Mickey smells almonds (presumably sweet) on fellow conman JW3 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 JW3 is alive and absconding with the money.
  • 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 eponymous hero of MacGyver, who then made use of chemicals from a nearby photography store to create an antidote.
  • 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".
  • Midsomer Murders: In "The Village That Rose From the Dead", the second victim of the week is murdered by being forced to drink from a cyanide laced flask. Barnaby, Winter and Kam all notice the smell of bitter almonds.
  • Murdoch Mysteries:
    • In "I, Murdoch", Dr Ogden identifies that the Body of the Week has been killed with prussic acid because of the scent of bitter almonds.
    • In "Murdoch at the Opera", Dr. Grace describes smelling the aroma of bitter almonds coming from the corpse of the young opera singer. Later, after the culprit prima donna takes poison and dies onstage, Crabtree brings out a wine glass he found and Murdoch himself sniffs it and says, "Cyanide."
  • 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.note  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.
  • Whodunnit? (UK): In "Dead Ball", the detective detects the smell of bitter almonds on the lips of the Victim of the Week and declares him a victim of cyanide poisoning.

  • 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.
  • "Fear and Delight" by The Correspondents. The singer knows the woman he is singing to is dangerous but cannot resist her.
    I'm an innocent being seduced by your charms,
    I'm a young boy tickled to death in your arms,
    Your kisses taste like bitter almonds,
    It's wrong but I want you tonight.
  • Referenced in Genesis's "Broadway Melody of 1974", from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway:
    The cheerleader waves her cyanide wand
    There's a smell of peach blossom and bitter almond
  • The Legendary Pink Dots' "Lisa's Party," where the titular hostess cleverly conceals the poison in her baking.
    She spread the cyanide in layers across her delicate mince pies,
    And told her guests "A hint of almond makes the dullest cake seem nice."
    And they all died

  • 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.
  • 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"...

    Tabletop Games 
  • Hunter: The Reckoning: The sample mutant NPC from the "Urban Legends" Sourcebook lives in a trailer park that is home only to the truly desperate and poor. One of the things that makes the place so bad is that the water has a bitter almond taste from the pollution.

  • 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.

    Video Games 
  • In the Detective Conan Wii game, one of the victims ends up with cyanide poisoning in the Labyrinth of Ice...and Conan, as always, is conveniently there.
  • 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.

  • Chopping Block screwed this up, making the standard "almonds" reference with no mention of bitterness.
  • The Rant in this strip of Darths & Droids talks about how Dungeon Masters could instill paranoia in certain types of players by narrating things a certain way. One of the examples he gives makes a perfectly safe offering of honeyed wine sound a lot more sinister by invoking this trope:
    "You sniff the golden liquid in a proffered cup, and think you can recognise a faint odour of almonds..."
  • Used as the punchline of this Something*Positive strip.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • 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.
  • In the Goof Troop episode "For Pete's Sake", a frightened Pete (who thinks someone is trying to kill him) is having trouble sleeping, so he watches a night drama movie on TV. We hear dialogue of a woman giving her partner milk to help him sleep, only to have the man say, "This tastes like almonds. Almonds?!! Auugh, I've been poisoned!" Needless to say, Pete's paranoia is not reduced.
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Real Life 
  • 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. Furthermore, the smell of cut hay is unanimously pleasant and sweet, since it's literally just grass.
  • 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 claims that he 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.
  • Bitter apricot kernels (almonds and apricots are both in the Prunus genus and of the Rosaceae (rose) family) are sold as "organic, raw, and gluten free health food", often with claims that they are cancer fighters due to their content of "laetrile" or "Vitamin B17". "B17" is in fact Amygdalin, a molecule that is digested and put through a process that results in Benzaldehyde (the source for the almond-smell) and hydrogen cyanide which, if taken in a large enough oral dosage, can be lethal. Apricot kernels have a whopping 8% Amygdalin while bitter almonds have 5%, and people eat this snake oil up any way they can. Technically, you can't die of cancer if you die of cyanide poisoning.
  • It's not unknown for a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for hazardous chemicals to describe what a substance smells like AND to note that it's fatal if the concentration is strong enough that you can smell it.
    • Makes one wonder how this comes to be: "Hey, who's got oranges?..." *thud*