Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review of "Before the Poison" [31]

Before the Poison: A Novel by Peter Robinson
William Morrow, ISBN 978-0062004796
February 21, 2012, 368 pages

It has been over a year since his wife's death, but Chris Lowndes is still rather at sea. An Englishman by birth, but an LA resident for over 30 years, he is not really finding his very successful career as the composer of scores for movies too inspiring at the moment and thinks a chance is needed. Sight unseen, or actually just seen in a few photographs, he buy a house in his Yorkshire home, packs up and heads back to the place of his birth.

He arrives at the slightly neglected but lovely house, a little surprised by how isolated it is from the town and his neighbors. And even a bit more surprised that it has a bit of a dark history, one recent enough that some of the people involved are still alive. Slightly more disturbing is that Chris, who may be sensitive to such things, senses a presence in the old house. Yes, it may just be his insomnia and the noises of a creaky old house, but for whatever reason, Chris becomes interested in it's story of death and murder and the woman at the center of it, Grace Fox.

Decades ago, it was the home of Doctor Ernest Fox, a well respected local doctor, and his beautiful, and much younger, wife Grace. When Dr. Fox died during a snowstorm on a winter night in 1953, at first it was thought that the doctor had suffered a heart attack. But when it is found out that Grace was having an affair with a young local artist, she is charged with her husband's murder and soon met her end at the end of the hangman's noose.

Now the home's new owner can not let the story rest. Was it actually murder and if it was, was Grace really guilty, or just convicted because of her flaunting of the morality of the day?
Chris takes the investigation on as his project, or as some of his friends  think, his obsession. At the same time he is trying to put his own life back together, starting a new life in a new place, taking his composing in a new direction, and maybe even finding new love. But he has his own, very personal, reasons for his interest in Grace's case, one that will lead to a surprising revelation.

Author Peter Robinson is best known for his Alan Bank series, so let's start by saying that this is NOT part of this series. This is a standalone, and in my opinion a quite good one.
But if you are a fan of this series and pick this up expecting another, as it seems many reviewers were, you may be disappointed.
I love the feel of this book, in ways harkening back to mysteries of an early time. The atmosphere of the house, the Yorkshire setting, and especially the interspersed excerpts from the account of Grace's trial and her journal when she was a nurse in the heart of the horrors of WWII, make this a book with one foot firmly in the present and the other firmly in the world of the Second World War and it's aftermath in England. Chris is a great, very likable character...not so much his realtor girlfriend...but maybe the real star of this book is the executed Grace. She starts out an enigma, not testifying in her own defense, walking quietly to her death. But once we get to the excerpts from her wartime journals, her account of her horrible experience in the South Pacific and later in the battlefields of Europe, a very different woman emerges...and yes, one that might be capable of murder if she felt there was cause. And cause there might be.

The ending was very good, even if it felt a bit rushed. And most of the book was very interesting, even if it it took a big of a lag in the middle before we get started on Grace's journals. This is largely a character driven book. Not a great deal happens, much of the present day story consisting of Chris driving around and even flying to distant lands to interview people who knew Grace, a lot more talking than doing. Luckily, we have a successful amateur investigator, with the resources to pursue the leads that open up. And happily, the look back is much more eventful, creating a nice balance overall.

I think fans of Mr. Robinson will enjoy this book if they go into it not expecting it to be something it is not, part of the Bank's series, and readers new to his work, like myself, will find an author they will want to take a further look at.

My thanks to William Morrow for providing a copy of this book for review.


  1. I got a copy of this book and it's on my "to be read soon" stack. I love the cover, first of all. So vintage looks. Suits the subject matter. I've read a few of the Alan Banks books. Really liked IN A DRY SEASON. I've kind of read mixed view of this one, but I suspect it will be a winner for me. Your review makes me believe that even more.

    1. A lot..A LOT..of the 'negative' reviews I saw were from fans who were mad that this was not a Bank series book...which I think has nothing to do with the merits of this one.

    2. I agree and, to get on my soapbox, I don't really understand that. Where is it written that a writer with a series can't do a stand alone? And if they didn't realize, as I've read in several review, how could you not? All you have to do is skim the dustcover or take a quick look at the summary on a website. OK, down off the soapbox, but geez, sometimes people are too clueless. LOL

  2. I can't believe I keep forgetting to read more of this author! And it would be good to do it with a standalone.

  3. This book is sitting on my shelf waiting to be read. If only I had more time! Nice review

  4. This sounds like a creepy page turner.

  5. Sounds like a nice combination of elements.


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