Beloved Poison by E. S. Thomson is a richly atmospheric Victorian crime novel, set in crumbling 1850s London infirmary, where murder is the price to be paid for secrets kept (Available September 13, 2016).
Beloved Poison by E. S. Thomson is a beautifully dark portrait of Victorian London that I believe Charles Dickens would feel right at home in. The dingy, dismal streets and crumbling infirmary are vividly wrought and provide the perfect backdrop for the sensational murder of a controversial doctor as well as the unraveling of many dark secrets.
The characters are vivid with their colorful and often larger-than-life personalities and feel as if they’ve stepped right off the pages of the penny dreadfuls that were popular during that time. Our narrator Jem Flockhart, for instance, is a woman who has lived her whole life in disguise. Her father has no male heirs and insists that she pretend to be a man so she can inherit his apothecary business after his death. This becomes the least of her concerns, however, when the ancient infirmary that houses the apothecary is slated for demolition, threatening her livelihood.
The events take on a lighter note when she meets and befriends the young architect, Will Quartermain, after he’s sent ahead of his senior colleagues to oversee the removal of the thousands of bodies buried in the infirmary’s cemetery. Together, Will and Jem stumble upon six tiny coffins filled with mysterious effigies and floral remains—and their lives are changed forever.
I had once felt safe at St Saviour’s. Life was always the same for us, circumscribed by ward rounds and prescription making, by the gathering of herbs and the preparation of tinctures, pills and salves. There was comfort in that routine, for all of us, and pleasure in doing it well. How quickly things had changed. People and places I had once regarded with a rather bored familiarity had taken on an unkind aspect. Our world, once so ordered and predictable, now seethed with jealousy, resentment and murderous ambition.
Jem has few friends at the infirmary, whether it's the distance she keeps in order to maintain her disguise or the ugly birthmark that stains her face, the reason is unclear. However, the often ridiculed lethario, Doctor Bain, is one of those friends. Once the coffins are discovered and word gets around the infirmary, Bain offers to help Jem and Will investigate them further to determine what secrets they hold. It’s apparent to Jem that Bain already knows what they mean, but before she’s able to speak to him privately about it, he’s found dead—poisoned in his own home. Can Jem and Will solve the murder before the body count rises?
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and though I felt, at first, that the characters were a little over-the-top, I found myself swept away by the darkly atmospheric crime drama that unfolded before me. I was on the edge of my seat as tension mounted, and I could hardly believe how quickly I sped through 400 pages.
I especially enjoyed the portrayal of Jem’s complicated life. I’ve read a few books lately that deal with women living life as men in order to “fit in” within a predominantly patriarchal society, but I don’t think I’ve encountered the subject portrayed as uniquely as it is in Beloved Poison. In addition to her literal disguise in men’s clothes, Jem also deals with a mask-like port wine birthmark that mars most of her face. Her unusual appearance ads to the penny dreadful-like feel of the novel as the author tackles the subjects of inner and outer beauty and monstrosity in Victorian society, subjects that are very much at the center of the mystery to be solved.
I also enjoyed the complicated relationship she has with Will. It’s clear throughout that the loyalty and friendship between them is genuine, and they bond over mutual feelings of outsiderness that I think resonates with anyone living in the margins of any society. Jem also struggles with sexual attraction toward her childhood friend, Eliza Magorian, and I wish that this relationship and the societal repercussions of alternate sexuality could have been explored further. I felt that it was just glossed over as if it wasn’t as big of a deal in that time period as it might have actually been, historically speaking. Physical appearance has more to do with the reluctance on the narrator’s part than social implications, especially if her true sex were discovered.
Eliza Magorian regarded me over the shaggy heads of her chrysanthemums, and raised an I-told-you-so eyebrow. Then, when Will was not looking, she winked. The blood rushed to my face, my birthmark throbbing in time with the violent beating of my heart. Could she hear it? Did she feel as I did? And yet how could she? How could anyone? Instinctively I put my hand to my eyes, shielding my hideous face from her gaze, and looked away.
With macabre potrayals of anatomy, science, and death, this Dickensian crime novel is not to be missed, especially if you’re missing Showtime’s Penny Dreadful and are looking to fill the loss of such a brilliant series.
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Ardi Alspach was born in Florida, raised in South Carolina, and now resides in New York City with her cat and an apartment full of books. By day, she's a publicist, and by night, she's a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @ardyceelaine or check out her website at ardyceelaine.wordpress.com.