In England in 1953 Grace Fox is hung for poisoning her husband. In 2010 Hollywood composer Chris Lowndes returns to his Yorkshire birthplace and buys a house in Swaledale which once belonged to Grace, and becomes obsessed with finding out if Grace was guilty or innocent of the crime.
Before the Poison reads like a Golden Age classic crime novel, an unhurried, deliberate unraveling of a mystery paralleled by a long, slow reveal of the narrator’s own motivation, told with a ratcheting up of tension that I found excruciatingly delicious. It is so well plotted, and the two narratives dovetail at the end so naturally, without a hint of contrivance. The scenes of Grace in World War II are devastatingly real. I wrote to Peter Robinson when I finished the book and he wrote back
I was talking about the book at Oxford yesterday, as part of the annual St Hild’s Crime Weekend. Their theme was “Crimes of the Past: War and Other Evils” this year, and I was Guest of Honour, so I talked mostly about In a Dry Season and Before the Poison. One of the things I mentioned was how my fictionalised account of Grace’s journal made its way to a woman of 99 in New Zealand who actually went through that experience on the life-raft and is still alive today! And approved of my version!
I always say that everything is personal and Robinson makes that manifest here. Chris’ determination to discover the truth about Grace is so personal, and it rings so heartbreakingly true. Like Reginald Hill, Robinson writes about the Yorkshire landscape as if it is one of the characters, alive and beautiful and sometimes ferocious in the extreme. And I have to give a shout out to the wonderful title–Before the Poison. Perfect, however you parse it. You’ll know why when you read the book. Highly recommended.