Beloved Poison – E.S. Thomson

Product Details

BLURB: The object I drew out was dusty and mildewed, and blotched with dark rust-coloured stains. It smelt of time and decay, sour, like old books and parchments. The light from the chapel’s stained glass window blushed red upon it, and upon my hands, as if the thing itself radiated a bloody glow.

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. Ambition, jealousy and hatred seethe beneath the veneer of professional courtesy. Always an outsider, and with a secret of her own to hide, apothecary Jem Flockhart observes everything, but says nothing.

And then 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-forgotten past – 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. And murder is the price to be paid for the secrets to be kept.

If someone had told me I’d have spent nights engrossed in a book about the history of medicine and apothecary, and the story of a hospital in 1850, I’d have been slightly sceptical. But Elaine Thomson’s Beloved Poison is an absolute gem of a historical crime novel – highly original – and I’m not at all surprised it made it to the shortlist of four books for the McIlvanney Prize for Best Scottish Crime Novel of 2016. It didn’t win, but it’s most definitely worthy of further investigation!

Our protagonist is Jem, who more or less runs the apothecary single-handedly in St. Saviour’s hospital. Jem’s mother died in childbirth, as did one of the twins she was carrying. Sent away to be brought up in the country for eight years, few people in St. Saviour’s recall if it was the male or female twin which survived. But Jem is in fact Jemima, not Jeremiah, a secret she hides by binding her breasts and walking and behaving like a man. A woman would never be allowed to hold such a position in those days, but with Jem’s father’s ailing health she finds herself taking on more and more responsibility.

However, a stranger arrives to work at St. Saviour’s – Will, an architect who has been sent to oversee the somewhat gruesome removal of the bodies buried in the graveyard next to St. Saviour’s, this being the first stage in the movement of the entire hospital to the south of the Thames.

Will and Jem become fast friends, and whilst showing Will around the hospital, he and Jem come across six tiny coffins, with effigies of dolls inside, wrapped in blood-soaked cloth. (Shades of Ian Rankin‘s The Falls – the real mysterious coffins reside in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.) They bring the coffins to the attention of Dr. Bain, the only other person in the hospital Jem counts as a friend and trustworthy. Together they have been working on a treatise on poisons and their effects, and Dr. Bain has been known to test the poisons in small quantities on himself to see their effects. His fatal flaw, however, is that he is a notorious womanizer, even sleeping with his colleagues’ wives, and making no attempt to hide it. Little wonder that there are people out for revenge. Being no fool, he realises this, and leaves a series of clues with the most unlikely people in the hope that, should anything happen to him, Jem, with Will’s help, will figure out the meaning of the coffins, and their connection to a series of heinous crimes.

There are a wonderful variety of characters in and around St. Saviour’s – Gabriel Locke, trainee apothecary, who enjoys spending his time tormenting nurse Mrs. Speedicut (Greedigut, to him!), who carries all the hospital gossip to the apothecary; Dr. Magorian, Dr. Graves and Dr. Catchpole, who resent Dr. Bain’s “shocking, new-fangled” medicinal ideas (like keeping wounds clean, and operating in whites so any dirt can be seen); Eliza Magorian, daughter of the doctor and Jem’s childhood friend and sweetheart, who’s been persuaded by her mother to join the lady almoners, who read the Bible to patients; and Joe Silks, leader of a gang of orphan urchins who carry messages for the more agreeable members of staff for a shilling. And that’s before we get to the ghost – a Prior who walks the streets near the hospital when it’s foggy…

These are just some of the characters involved. The storyline itself is wonderful, and a warning that the poor should never try to pull one over on the rich and powerful…

I am delighted to tell you that this book is to be the first in a series featuring Jem. I particularly found the work Jem did, and the plants he nurtured in the garden, absolutely fascinating. I urge you to seek out this book, and enjoy it for yourself. I can assure you that you too will find yourself utterly immersed in the fascinating mysteries St. Saviour’s holds. Roll on the next book featuring Jem Flockhart!

Very highly recommended.

My thanks to Constable and NetGalley for my ARC of this novel in return for an honest review.

Darktown – Thomas Mullen

Product Details

BLURB: Atlanta, 1948. In this city, all crime is black and white.
On one side of the tracks are the rich, white neighbourhoods; on the other, Darktown, the African-American area guarded by the city’s first black police force of only eight men. These cops are kept near-powerless by the authorities: they can’t arrest white suspects; they can’t drive a squad car; they must operate out of a dingy basement.

When a poor black woman is killed in Darktown having been last seen in a car with a rich white man, no one seems to care except for Boggs and Smith, two black cops from vastly different backgrounds. Pressured from all sides, they will risk their jobs, the trust of their community and even their own lives to investigate her death.

Their efforts bring them up against a brutal old-school cop, Dunlow, who has long run Darktown as his own turf – but Dunlow’s idealistic young partner, Rakestraw, is a young progressive who may be willing to make allies across colour lines . . .

Soon to be a major TV series from Jamie Foxx and Sony Pictures Television.

Now, finally, somewhat later than anticipated due to laptop issues, to Darktown. This is one of those novels you’ll find you really want to savour, rather than rush through and not enjoy to it’s full extent – because there’s a great deal to enjoy. It also made me look at Mullen‘s earlier novels and buy one, as it was a reasonable £2.49 on Kindle.

Set in 1948, it’s about the first black police officers – all eight of them – taken on by Atlanta Police Department. The idea is they police the areas where the black community live, colloquially (and somewhat derogatorily) known as Darktown. They don’t have the power to arrest white people, nor do they have squad cars, having to wait (and wait…) on white officers in a van to transport arrestees.  

Many of the white police aren’t as pleased with this lift off their workload as you’d think they would be – they see it as a besmirching of the prestigious Atlanta P.D. uniforms, and many white Atlantans are alarmed at the thought of armed black men on the street, police officers notwithstanding. More pragmatically, it keeps them out of areas where they take bribes (and probably, er, favours) from establishments such as Mama Dove’s. Also lucrative business is turning a blind eye – and perhaps more – to the bootlegging which goes on in abandoned factories in Darktown. Plus they have a host of snitches in the area. One officer in particular – Officer Dunlow – sees Darktown as his territory: he decides what goes on there, and who gets a free pass – assuming they pay him off appropriately, of course. His partner is a rookie, the more enlightened Officer Denny Rakestraw, whose just about had his fill with Dunlow beating up blacks for sport, as well as spouting utter rubbish about why blacks are inferior. (Example: ‘Their skulls are thicker, which is why they’re so hard-headed, and also explains their smaller brains.’ It would make you laugh if the guy didn’t actually believe it.)

The issue is, of course, that the black police officers genuinely want to see the community cleaned up, as they and their families and friends have to live there. This puts them on a collision course with Dunlow, beginning when he allows a white driver to go free. Officer Lucius Boggs and Officer Tommy Smith, our main characters, wanted him to be made to show his licence and registration, as he’d damaged a lamppost. Also, at that point there was a young black woman also in the car, wearing a distinctive yellow sundress, and bruised at the mouth. The two black officers see the car again, and see the driver strike her in the face, at which point she runs from the car. She was later found murdered, and dumped in a pile of garbage. The white officers have little or no interest in identifying her, never mind solving her murder, so Boggs and Smith decide, against the rules, to sniff around – only to find someone surprising is also looking into her murder. There are also bits and pieces of useful information, coming from unexpected quarters.

Mullen uses the language of the time, which is obviously essential for authenticity, but still shocking, especially when you think it was only 70 years ago. Men who served their country with pride may have expected a little more respect upon their return home, but nothing had changed. A young Reverend King makes an appearance alongside Boggs’s father, who is also a minister. When Boggs sees Smith’s home, he realises he has led a privileged and rather sheltered background due to his father’s status, receiving little verbal abuse – until now.

Mullen‘s writing is plain, yet beautiful, and you can build up an explicit mental picture of every character with ease. Many of them have fascinating, brutal, devastating back stories, which are woven into the tale with ease, and help you understand why each man is the way he is. An alarming trip to the country demonstrates that Darktown might not be the worst place for a black man to live and work. There is a great deal of talk of families heading north, to Chicago, where they hear they’re not treated with such derision.

It’s little wonder that this is being developed into a Sony TV series starring Jamie Foxx. I’m sure they’ll find plenty more stories to tell about this period, when there were still people alive who had worked as slaves. As well as the historical detail, there’s also a damn fine murder mystery woven into these pages, and, combined, they make Darktown an epic novel, not just for crime fans, and one of the best books I’ve read this year – and we’ve had a bumper crop. Thomas Mullen is most definitely a name to watch, if he’s not already on your radar.

Verdict: Not to be missed.

With thanks to Little Brown and NetGalley for my ARC in exchange for an honest review.