Mondays are for Murder: Beloved Poison..

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I honestly didn’t think we’d get a Murderous Monday in this month.  Things were looking a bit shaky – time was running out, I’d had a crack at two separate candidates and found them lacking – but then along comes Beloved Poison by E. S. Thomson, kindly provided by Hachette Australia for review, and all of a sudden we have a dark, stench-laden, historical, medical, gender-bending murder mystery on our claws.  Brilliant!  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Ramshackle and crumbling, trapped in the past and resisting the future, St Saviour’s Infirmary awaits demolition. Within its stinking wards and cramped corridors the doctors bicker and fight. Always an outsider, and with a secret of her own to hide, apothecary Jem Flockhart observes everything, but says nothing.

Six tiny coffins are uncovered, inside each a handful of dried flowers and a bundle of mouldering rags. When Jem comes across these strange relics hidden inside the infirmary’s old chapel, her quest to understand their meaning prises open a long-forgottenpast – with fatal consequences.

In a trail that leads from the bloody world of the operating theatre and the dissecting table to the notorious squalor of Newgate and the gallows, Jem’s adversary proves to be both powerful and ruthless. As St Saviour’s destruction draws near, the dead are unearthed from their graves whilst the living are forced to make impossible choices. Murder is the price to be paid for the secrets to be kept.

beloved poison

Plot Summary:

Jem Flockhart is a young woman pretending to be a young man, working in the apothecary of (architecturally) condemned hospital St Saviour’s, under the guidance of her father and a host of unsavoury medical men.  When Will Quartermain rolls up as the man in charge of overseeing the relocation of interred residents of St Saviour’s graveyard, prior to the hospitals’ demolition, Jem is annoyed at having to share her sleeping quarters and worried that personal secrets may come to light.  While showing Will around the hospital chapel, Jem unknowingly unearths some strange, disturbing relics that will set off a chain of events that threaten nearly everyone Jem holds dear.  One murder follows another and unless Jem and Will can make some links between the past and the present, Jem may well end up accused of the crimes and facing the gallows.

The Usual Suspects:

Pretty much everyone who works at St Saviour’s hospital is a suspect in this unusual murder mystery.  The main doctors, Magorian, Catchpole and Graves, all have motives and shady pasts; the wives and daughter of two of the doctors may well have their own reasons to commit murder; and there are servants, prostitutes and street urchins who could all have played a part.  Given that this is a historical fiction with certain darkish overtones, nobody is entirely blameless of wrong-doing of one sort or another and most of the characters are hiding some sort of secret they’d prefer was kept from the public.

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

This is a bit of an unusual pursuit, given that the first murder doesn’t happen until quite a way into the book.  Before that, the focus is more on figuring out the meaning behind the strange relics that Will and Jem discover.  Once the first murder occurs though, people start dropping like flies and the hunt is on in earnest.  It’s tricky to pinpoint the killer/s ahead of time though, because salient information is drip-fed throughout and relationships between characters are all important in unravelling the mystery.

Overall Rating:

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Four poison bottles for the steady drip, drip, drip of an alchemist’s retort

If you love a good murder mystery format but are looking for something with a sinister twist and more secrets than you could poke a rag-covered stick at, then I definitely recommend picking up Beloved Poison.  There is so much more going on here than in your typical murder mystery that it actually took me a while to figure out that this was actually going to involve hunting for a murderer.  There’s cross-dressing, graveyard excavation, limb amputations, lady almoners, poisons and potions, degenerative diseases, executions, bizarre rituals, mental asylums, prostitutes, ghostly presences and surgery practiced without regard for cleanliness and hygiene.

If I had to boil this one down though, I’d say that it was about secrets and masks.  We find out early on that Jem is playing a gender-swapping role for reasons that are fleshed out (although not, in my opinion, entirely believable) as the story unfolds, and is assisted in this by a large facial birthmark.  Jem’s father has some secrets of his own, not least of which relating to the death of Jem’s mother in childbirth.  The doctors of the hospital are all playing their own agendas, and each have habits, mannerisms and methods of working that are decidedly unpalatable, and their wives and lovers are just as bad.

The best thing about this book is the pervading atmosphere of bleakness and unrelenting gloom that Thomson has set up.  The historical aspects are faithfully recreated and some of the medical details described in stomach-churning detail.  While the atmosphere is thick with a pervasive miasma of sinister goings-on, the book itself isn’t a depressing read.  Jem and Will, and even apprentice apothecary Gabriel and servant Mrs Speedicut, inject a certain sense of fervour and hope that provides a neat counterpoint to their unsavoury surroundings.  Even if you don’t pick this one up for the murder mystery aspect there is plenty to uncover as you peel back the mud-encrusted layers of the lives of St Saviour’s residents.

I was also happy to see that this appears to be a standalone novel.  After all the shocks and “blergh” moments in this one, I don’t think I could stomach a second foray into London’s stinky historical underbelly any time soon!

I am also submitting this one for the Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge hosted by Escape with Dollycas:

alphabet soup challenge 2016

You can check out my progress toward that challenge here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

A Non-Fiction Double-Dip Review: Secrets, Wombats and Posionous Victorians…

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Before you hoe into your chosen snack for today, I suggest you give it a bit of a sniff.  Check its colour.  Consider whether anyone you might call an enemy was involved in preparing it.  And make sure you aren’t bending over (or at least that you are wearing pants with a reinforced seat).  For today’s nonfiction Double Dip involves two secret worlds – that of the Victorian age poison murderer, and that of the bum-biting wombat.  We received the first of these books from the publisher via Netgalley and the second we picked up on a whim while browsing the bum-biting wombat section at our local library.  Extra points to you if you know under what Dewey number books about bum- biting wombats are shelved.  Let’s tuck in!

First up we have The Secret Poisoner: The Victorian Age of Poisoning by Linda Stratmann.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Murder by poison alarmed, enthralled, and in many ways encapsulated the Victorian age. Linda Stratmann’s dark and splendid social history reveals the nineteenth century as a gruesome battleground where poisoners went head-to-head with authorities who strove to detect poisons, control their availability, and bring the guilty to justice. She corrects many misconceptions about particular poisons and documents how the evolution of issues such as marital rights and the legal protection of children impacted poisonings. Combining archival research with a chemist’s expertise and a novelist’s eye, Stratmann charts the era’s inexorable rise of poison cases both gruesome and sad.

Dip into it for…the secret poisoner

an ultra-thorough coverage of the use of poison in Victorian age murders (mostly in England and France) and the advances in forensic chemical science that allowed the law to gain convictions for murder by poison based on physical evidence. The format of this book consists of collections of actual cases of murder, attempted murder or suspected murder from the time period, interspersed with information about the scientists and chemists whose discoveries allowed for more efficient and accurate means of detecting poison in the deceased. The cases are well selected to demonstrate how court cases succeeded or failed upon the strength of the scientific evidence provided – or in some cases, how public opinion swayed the outcome of certain trials when the science was not yet developed sufficiently to keep pace with the kind of evidence that would provide the jury with the information needed to reasonably acquit or convict. The book focuses also on the gender and class issues surrounding poison murders, with women and the poorer classes seemingly more likely to use widely available and easily accessible poisons (both mineral and vegetable) to commit dastardly deeds.

Don’t dip if…

…you are looking for a concise history on the topic.  While I was very engaged with the information early on in the book, by the halfway point, I started to feel as if I had seen all this before.  Each chapter follows the same structure, beginning with a case study and the assertion that this case was pivotal in advancing either the science of poison detection or the laws related to availability of poisons, followed by a look at the key scientists of the time and their work, succeeded by a bunch of other murder case studies.  Similarly, each murder case study followed a very similar format: the details of the victim and murderer, the instance in which the victim fell sick and died (or didn’t, as the case may be), the exhumation of the victim (and in some cases, other corpses that, in hindsight, may have suffered the same fate by the same hand), the court case, the conviction (or acquittal) and the execution (or transportation or getting-off-scot-free!).  Even though the introduction notes that the author left out many interesting cases that were too similar to the ones included, I feel that a good deal more slashing and hacking could have been done in the selection process for the various cases presented.

Overall Dip Factor

Despite the fact that the book is long and could have done with a bit more fussiness in the selection of the cases presented, I was nevertheless fascinated with some of the information revealed here.  Some of the cases, particularly relating to memorable murderers who seemed quite happy to top their own children (as well as any number of other people’s offspring) almost beggared belief, but serves as a good reminder as to how common infant and child mortality were during the Victorian age, such that communities might not think it strange that a woman’s husband, five children, three step-children and the next-door-neighbour’s cat might all die within a week of each other, for instance.  I would recommend this one for fans of forensic investigation TV shows, who are looking for a blast from the past as to how the experts got their man (or more commonly, woman) back in the Victorian day.

Next up we have The Secret Life of Wombats by Jackie French and illustrated by Bruce Whatley.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A non-fiction book that explores everything you’ve ever wanted to know about wombats. Jackie French loves wombats. She’s been living with and studying them for over 30 years, and they have been featured characters in many of her books. Now her beloved wombats take centre stage, as Jackie reveals everything you have ever wanted to know about them – from their zoological history to habitation and habits. Jackie also shares some personal stories from her experiences living with these wonderful creatures. there are also wombat Q&As and wombat jokes sprinkled throughout the book.

Dip into it for… secret world of wombats

an extremely amusing and light-hearted look at the things you never suspected about wombats’ behaviour. This book is marketed as being for seven to twelve year olds as a companion tome to the wildly successful Diary of a Wombat series by the same author and illustrator team, but as an adult reader I found it the perfect introductory tome about the wild and wacky world of wombats. The text doesn’t speak down to the reader by any means, so I never got the sense that it was specifically written for kids. Also, the book is full of unexpectedly hilarious anecdotes about the wombats that Jackie French has personally known, through sharing her outdoor living space with the furry little guys. Every time I recall her story about hearing sneezing coming from underground, I have a bit of a chuckle. Similarly, who knew that wombats had a penchant for biting bums (wombat bums and others), or indeed any other parts of the anatomy that aren’t kept out of the way of wombat teeth? Amazing.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re expecting some kind of scientific coverage of wombat husbandry or habitat. While I didn’t notice particularly that this was directed at kids, nor does it go into the kind of detail a book targeted at adults would on such a topic.

Overall Dip Factor

If you have any interest at all in wombats and their lives, I would recommend picking this book up and having a flick through.  The information bits are engaging and surprising and combined with French’s anecdotal evidence about wombats she has known, provide a light, fun, nonfiction break for youngsters interested in the natural world and adult readers who just really like wombats.

Now that our snack time is at an end, how are you feeling? Tummy rumbling? Tightness in the bowels? Bowl smashed by a wombat?  Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Until next time,

Bruce

Mondays are for Murder: Arsenic for Tea…

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Welcome to another dose of Mondays are for Murder, the feature in which I report on the latest murder-mystery to have graced my shelf and eyeballs.  Today’s review underwent a midstream alteration – I was going to feature the new(ish), not-written-by-Agatha-Christie-but-featuring-Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah, but unfortunately I found it to be lacking in the Poirot department (you can read my Goodreads review here) and so I turned my attention to that inimitable schoolgirl duo, Wells and Wong, in their second outing, Arsenic for Tea by Robin Stevens.

Hazel and Daisy are staying at Daisy’s home, Fallingford, for the holidays along with their dorm-mates, Kitty and Beanie, under the tutelage of slightly suspicious governess, Miss Alston.  When Mrs Wells’ odious young friend, Mr Curtis drops dead during Daisy’s birthday tea, it becomes apparent that all is not as it appears at Fallingford. The girls immediately suspect that Mr Curtis has been poisoned and once again find themselves thrust into the midst of a murder investigation.  As the weather worsens and Fallingford is cut off by rising floodwaters, will Hazel and Daisy (and assistants Kitty and Beanie) be able to untangle the mystery before the murderer strikes again?

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The Usual Suspects:

This time Stevens has kept things all in the family – mostly.  There’s Daisy’s parents, Lord and Lady Hastings, her Aunt Saskia (she of the floaty scarves and light fingers), her shrewd Uncle Felix, older brother Bertie and Bertie’s school friend Stephen.  Then there’s the hired help – Miss Alston, who is acting very strangely indeed (and not at all like a governess), Lord Hasting’s Gentleman’s Gentleman, and the kitchen staff (who always know more than they are telling).

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

The hunt is conducted in a somewhat clandestine fashion, as it is not immediately apparent to all concerned that murder has in fact taken place.  Thus, our girl detectives must use all of their cunning and wiles to sneak about, eavesdrop and generally avoid the watchful gaze of Miss Alston by concealing their enquiries under the pretence of multiple games of hide and seek and the like.  There are plenty of twists and turns though, as suspects are ruled out and back in again, and the girls have more than one brush with mysterious persons unknown lurking, supposedly unseen, in incriminating places.

Overall Rating:

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Four poison bottles for a good old-fashioned big house romp

This second offering featuring Wells and Wong had all the features of a manor-house-based Christie-mystery, with the added bonus of child detectives.  I really enjoyed the period feel of the story and, being a known fan of Christie, the careful plotting of the murder narrative.  This was a real whodunit, of the kind I like, where the focus is on solving the puzzle, and trying to be as clever as the author.

I am quite pleased with how this emerging series is turning out, and I can’t wait to see what Stevens does with the girls next.

Until next time (in which we will plunge into Dorothy L. Sayers’ work – finally!),

Bruce