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.
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.
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:
You can check out my progress toward that challenge here.
Until next time,