Poison in Her Pen: An Interview with Mystery Author BJ Magnani

They say that poison is a woman’s weapon, but in the stories of mystery author B.J. Magnani, poison is nothing short of delightful. In her Dr. Lily Robinson series, Magnani serves thrilling espionage and medical mystery with a side of botany and toxicology. I’m equally fascinated by Lily Robinson’s poison garden and her conflict between her oath to save lives as a doctor and her destiny as an undercover operative/assassin working to rid the world of evil-doers. 

Magnani, who is a Professor of Anatomic and Clinical Pathology Emerita at Tufts University School of Medicine and former Chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, MA, and chair of the College of American PathologistsToxicology Committee, began writing about her character, Lily Robinson, as part of a series in an academic journal. The eight short stories were collected as a book, Lily Robinson and the Art of Secret Poisoning. From there, three more novels evolved, with a fourth and final book scheduled for 2024. 

Magnani, who still lectures on toxicology and forensics, graciously agreed to answer my many questions about her books, her series, and her choice of poisons. 

Did the Lily Robinson character come to you all at once or did she reveal herself to you gradually? 

In 2009, I was asked by the editor of a premier journal, Clinical Chemistry, to write about a fictional character who used poisons to assassinate “the bad guys.” So I wrote as Lily Robinson. Each month, readers from around the world would have to guess the poison Lily used, and in the next month’s issue of the journal, I wrote how I did it and a tutorial on the toxin fulfilling the entertaining and educational objective of the editor.

Readers sent their guesses into the journal, and out of the correct answers, a name was picked to win a gift certificate to the bookstore.

So obviously your background in science informed this series. What draws you to the study of poison?

Both my scientific and medical careers have involved toxins and poisons. I found the field fascinating. What’s not to love about the ingenious way plants and animals defend themselves since they lack sharp canine teeth and long claws. Nature expends these chemicals wisely.

Natural poisons are a double-edged sword. For example, many toxins have been used as tools to understand the physiology of the human nervous system. We have derived a great many drugs from plants to treat heart ailments, pain, and cancer. Unfortunately, certain plant derivatives like naturally occurring opiates have been a source of addiction. And man-made poisons create havoc in the environment. I feel we all need to be good shepherds of nature.

Lily is conflicted about using her skills for government work…espionage and assassinations. Yet she does it. Talk a little about that. How do you, as a writer, balance her character as a healer with her work as a killer?

Lily has the trolley problem. She tells herself that “the good of the many outweighs the good of the one.” Though conflicted, she has been deeply traumatized by her past and feels this is her penance—having to “save the world.” The novels also portray her at work helping patients, so we see both the “physician healer” as well as “assassin world saver.”

Yes, that’s what I love about her character, that inner conflict in a highly intelligenct character. How many Lily Robinson books will there be? 

I’m finishing the series finale now. This is the book that finally ties up all the loose ends. What happens after that? We’ll just have to see.

Have you been to some of the places in your books? 

I’ve been to many of the places I write about. I’m a global traveler, like my characters. I still have destinations I’d like to visit. My newest novel takes place in Australia, South Africa, and Belgium.

I think it’s fascinating that you are both a scientist and a fiction writer. Were you a Nancy Drew reader or a plastic stethoscope/doctor kit type kid? 

I read Trixie Belden (Julie Campbell Tatham) and the Hardy Boys as a kid. I never wanted to be a doctor. A scientist, yes. But one thing led to another.

Who are your favorite authors and/or authors whose work influenced your own?

I’m a big fan of physician authors from Arthur Conan Doyle to Robin Cook and Michael Crichton.

What do you love most about the fiction writing life? 

I immerse myself in the lives of the characters. I enjoy creating their world, their challenges, their loves, and their heartaches.

You say you are finishing up the last book in the series. In what direction do you see your writing career going from here?

I’d like to see my novels picked up as a limited series in film. I write very visually, as pathologists are very visual. Many readers have told me they can see the film happening in their heads.

I love the idea of a poison garden. Which deadly plant is the most beautiful?

Wolfsbane (Aconitum napellus) is sometimes called the Queen of All Poison and has beautiful purple flowers.

Thank you, B.J. for answering all these questions! It’s a fascinating topic and a very cool series. 

B.J. Magnani’s Lily Robinson series is published by Encircle Publications and can be purchased on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, other online retailers and your favorite independent bookstore (ask them to order one for you and several for their shelves!). You can learn more about BJ and her work at BJMagnani.com which includes a great blog which would be fascinating to mystery readers (and writers!) and anyone interested in poison and pathology. Check it out! 

Shelley speaking at a library event in Maine, April 2023.