Monday, March 18, 2013

Before The Poison by Peter Robinson

Before The Poison
by Peter Robinson

Over the past year or so, I've been sucked into non-American crime, spy, and mystery stories, though more in my Netflix-provided series binging, and a little less so in my reading. MI-5/Spooks, Prime Suspect, Wallander (both Swedish and English versions), and a smattering of other similar shows have filled my time while I wait for new episodes of Doctor Who (March 30!). So even though my usual reading habits fall into that vaguely defined genre of “literary fiction,” I've decided to occasionally venture out into other word neighborhoods, this time with British mystery writer Peter Robinson.

Before The Poison is the story of Chris Lowndes, a well-off film score composer who has just returned to England after the death of his wife. He's lived in the States for twenty-five years, and he feels like he needs a change and the space to work on some non-film related music. Just outside a small Yorkshire town, he buys an old mansion, Kilnsgate House. The remoteness of it feels both fitting and unsettling, even more so when he discovers that a man was supposedly murdered there fifty years before.

Grace Fox was tried and hanged for poisoning her doctor husband, Ernest, despite there being only circumstantial evidence for her guilt. This story, for a number of reasons, makes Chris curious about what really might have happened, and finding out becomes a project for him. Is it a distraction from his grief? Yes. Is he okay with that? For now. However, the strange feelings he's having about Grace Fox's case and his wife are leaving him unable to get a good night's rest.

I knew there was no point in lying there. I had to do something, make some tea, watch a movie, anything.

As I finally stumbled toward the stairs, I noticed that the door to the bedroom opposite mine, the guest room, was slightly ajar. I could have sworn I had closed it after my tour of the house, and I hadn't been back there since. Puzzled, I wandered over and gave it a gentle push.

I couldn't be certain that I saw it, but just for a moment I thought I glimpsed a figure reflected in the wardrobe mirror. I knew it couldn't be me because the angle was all wrong. It wasn't a frightening figure. In fact, I had the impression that it was a beautiful woman in a long satin nightgown. She was standing still, as if deep in thought, or shock, staring at something, then suddenly she dashed away, simply disappeared.

It was all over in a split second, and when I tried to piece it all together afterward, I decided it must have been a carry-over from my dream. There were shadows in the old house. 

Chris' family and friends are a bit concerned for him, how this visit into the past seems to eat up a lot of his time, but for the most part they let him run with it. He begins talking with some of the locals, a few of whom are old enough to have known Grace Fox while she was still alive, and he also looks into books and newspaper articles published about the trial.

Instead of making Chris relay all this information to us, Robinson instead writes chapters that are from those research materials, and it provides an alternative viewpoint from a man who can't quite make up his mind about whether Grace actually did murder her husband. At one point, we get to read diary excerpts from Grace herself, with the means by which they are acquired not revealed until later in the book. During World War II, Grace was a nurse stationed on a boat headed to Asia, a position that began rather quietly before the war escalated in that corner of the world.

Monday, January 12, 1942
I heard that Kuala Lumpur fell yesterday. It can only be a matter of time now. Guns facing the sea are not much use when the enemy invades by land, which everyone said could never be done. We can turn them around, of course, but everyone says they are no use in this kind of battle. We would only end up shelling ourselves. The talk among all the European women in the Raffles Hotel and the Cricket Club is whether to stay or go. They are frightened, and they would like to leave Singapore before it falls into the hands of the Japanese, but they do not want to leave their husbands and be perceived as cowards or deserters. The news coming out of Hong Kong is deeply disturbing. We hear of medical staff and patients alike being tortured and killed, sisters subjected to the most degrading ordeals. It seems the Japanese have no respect for the Red Cross, for medical staff, for the wounded, or for women. Major Schofield told me they did not sign the Geneva Convention, so they do not play by our rules.

Her entries only get worse, and everyone who knew her after the war says that she never talked about her time there, and that she sometimes seemed to have a sense of profound melancholy about her, though she was a very nice person.

Chris Lowndes is a likeable, understandable enough guy, though perhaps because he's a fifty-ish man with money, a little too much time is spent talking about what fine things he's bought himself, or why expense isn't a concern for his travels. A little of that is okay, but after several repeated mentions of his income or belongings, I thought, Enough, dude. We get it. There's also a small romantic subplot that maybe some readers might find a bit extraneous, but I thought it was a reasonable enough reaction for a man who is quite lonely and in a new environment.

The conclusion of the book is not necessarily surprising, though maybe some of the individual details are. It's not one of those mysteries that one reads to feel a sense of satisfaction at sussing out the puzzle before the narrator does. For the most part, I was just as back-and-forth about Grace Fox's guilt as Chris is, but without the side of grief.

Though I enjoyed Before The Poison quite a lot, I wouldn't say that it made me super-excited to immediately seek out Peter Robinson's other work. I know he has a long-running mysteries series called Inspector Banks, and maybe at some point I will look into it. However, this was a good jaunt into the mystery genre territory, and those looking to do the same will also likely find Before The Poison to be a good read.

Full Disclosure: William Morrow sent me this book. I thank them, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

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