If my reading of Peter Robinson's Before the Poison had not been so disjointed it may well have ended up on my favorites list last year. I started it for last fall's RIP reading, but then had to set it aside a little longer than I had hoped and only finished it at the very end of the year. It won the Arthur Ellis Award for best Novel and is just the sort of book I enjoy reading most. I may have been interrupted in my reading, but it was such an engaging story that I never lost the thread and when I picked it up again I fell easily back into the story. It's the sort of book that when you are reading it the rest of the world falls away and you lose yourself in the lives of the characters.
Before the Poison is not exactly a crime novel, though there is the possibility of a crime having occurred. Actually the premise involves the execution of a woman believed to have been a murderess. But did she really do it? She was hanged for the crime half a century before the events that take place in the novel. At the heart of the story is a mystery, one which becomes an obsession of the main character and now fifty years later he tries to get at the truth of the matter. Only he finds there is perhaps more than one truth and nothing is quite so cut and dry.
Chris Lowndes has spent most of his adult life in California where he worked composing music scores for films in Hollywood. After the death of his wife, a woman he was deeply in love with, he decides to return home to Yorkshire. His children are grown and have families of their own, but his mother still resides in the neighborhood. He buys a mansion that has long sat empty, a home that has quite a colorful history attached to it.
Kilnsgate House was once the home of a much respected country doctor and his wife. This would have been during and just after the war when a doctor's opinion was like that of God himself. Ernest and his beautiful wife Grace had one son and were thought of as pillars of the community. Well, at least he was. Grace was younger and beautiful and had a much younger lover, a local artist. None of her secrets would have come out and she would never have been accused of murdering her husband had not the pair been spotted in a hotel. The proprietress brought this fact to the police's attention and with much glee.
One holiday season after the war the couple had a dinner party. The weather was so foul no one could leave and no one get in. After dinner the doctor complained of heart pains and shortly after was dead. Grace had been a nurse in the war and so had tried to administer certain drugs in order to try and resuscitate Ernest but to no avail. The death seemed entirely fitting for a man his age and of the health complaints he had had. Then again, on closer inspection perhaps something Grace had given him might well have hurried along his death. Surely a woman who is willing to commit adultery is one who would be willing to kill her husband, too? Most damning is her lack of what everyone would expect--remorse. But then she denied having killed him, didn't take the stand at her own trial and worse remained stoical during the entire course of events leading up to her execution.
When Chris learns of what took place in the house coupled with a painting of Grace he sees he begins asking questions out of curiosity--piecing together bits of the story and becomes determined in showing her innocence so sure is he that she was wrongly accused and hanged. Chris is a man plagued by his own grief, (and there is a story in his history, too) and with the time and money to put towards finding out the truth his obsession grows. Nothing is ever so easy, though. How do you find the truth in what was assumed was a crime that occurred so long ago?
Grace never gets to tell her own story, though she is vibrantly alive in the pages of this story through the eyes and memories of others. For once the cover art with the woman's face only partially shown is actually very fitting. Red herrings abound and how could they not when Chris is coming up with theories based on his own experiences and desires for Grace to be innocent. The story is told through excerpts from the trial transcripts, journal entries written by Grace and edited by her granddaughter and conversations Chris has with the people still living who were there at the time.
The story takes some interesting turns and questions motive and culpability. This is a story that shows just how many shades of gray there are in life's dilemmas and that rarely is life's questions answered in black and white. There isn't exactly an 'aha' moment or a tense climactic moment where a twisting plot suddenly releases with a bang. It's all much more subtle than that and entirely satisfying in just how close to the truth he comes.
I didn't think I had so much to say about this story, which just goes to show you (since I didn't get even close to revealing all) how complex the lives of the characters are and how much there was to learn about them. Did she do it? I'm not going to tell.
I read one of Peter Robinson's mysteries years ago (even still have a vague sense of having liked it very much) and he has always been an author I have meant to return to. I'm only sorry it took me so long. That won't happen again since I have decided to embark now on his Inspector Alan Banks's mysteries also set in Yorkshire. I only meant to give Gallows View a glance, but I found myself getting caught up in the story from the first page so onto the night stand it goes (and into my bookbag as I return to work this week). Definitely a good find (or 're-find') for me.