Book Review: Beloved Poison, E.S. Thomson (2016)

This week saw the release of Dark Asylum, the second novel in E.S. Thomson’s Jem Flockhart series. To celebrate its launch, this post reviews the prequel, Beloved Poison. 

beloved-poisonI was scouring the shelves of Waterstones when I first
came across E.S. Thomson’s Beloved Poison. Initially struck by its sensational title and gorgeous cover art, my interest was well and truly piqued when I discovered it was a neo-Victorian murder mystery which centred on a mouldering metropolitan hospital. It’s a rare treat when a book appears which can function as both a pleasurable diversion and academic research.

Set in the 1840s, Beloved Poison is positioned at a turning point in the history of medicine. The hospital at the heart of the novel – St Saviour’s Infirmary – is a crumbling institution on the brink of demolition. It is about to be cleared to make way for a railway line and relocated to shiny new premises. The storyline looks back to older practices (from body-snatching to festering hospital wards), while gesturing towards the modernisation and professionalisation of medicine. It touches on contemporary debates surrounding antisepsis, the moral management of the insane, and the need for better nursing.

The cast of characters within the hospital – comprising our protagonist (an apothecary named Jem Flockhart), a gaggle of physicians, the matron, and lady philanthropists, among others – is brilliantly realised. As someone researching practitioners’ professional identities in the Victorian period, I loved the portrayal of the medical men, their toxic combination of arrogance and ambition, and the squabbles and infighting between them. They made a brilliant line-up of suspects for a murder mystery. The rich characterisation shows Thomson’s familiarity with medical history – there are wonderful touches, such as the moment where Dr Catchpole infects himself with syphilis to carry his point in a clinical argument. This recalls John Hunter’s legendary self-experimentation; he reputedly gave himself gonorrhoea, using a needle contaminated with syphilis. Given that St Saviour’s is such a ramshackle place, I was a little surprised to find it had so many apparently eminent physicians on its staff and that they so regularly attended the hospital. One might have expected them to be busy with their (more remunerative) private practice and for the hospital to engage plenty of surgeons and junior or house doctors as well. As the story unfolds, reasons why this bevy of physicians might be based there begin to emerge, but I would have enjoyed seeing an even more hierarchical division of medical staff, which could have brought out further tensions.

As it is, the book’s apothecaries occupy the bottom of the proverbial food chain, though they are shown to have an important role within the hospital and to enjoy a close relationship with its clinical staff. The position of the narrator-protagonist is rendered even more liminal because Jem is not only an apothecary, but also a young woman disguised as a man. This is no spoiler, since it’s revealed very early in the narrative and indeed on the back-cover blurb.

Had Beloved Poison been set several decades later, it could have featured a qualified medical woman with no need to conceal her sex. This is far from an oversight, however – Thomson knows her material, for her PhD thesis was on the history of medical women in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Edinburgh. Indeed, Jem does not so much look forward to the impending medical-woman movement but rather reflects the curious story of James Miranda Barry (1789/99-1865), the celebrated military surgeon. On his deathbed, it was revealed that Barry had female genitalia. Born Margaret Ann Bulkley, Barry adopted a male identity before pursuing a career in medicine. The story has gained increasing prominence in recent years but is easily sensationalised or oversimplified – little is known about its subject or whether Barry identified as male or female. Actually, Jem’s career is somewhat more plausible, for while Barry matriculated and graduated from the University of Edinburgh as a man, Jem is an apothecary who has trained through an apprenticeship, working closely alongside her own father, who engineers the concealment.

Barry’s story is used as a source text but Jem’s personal narrative is individuated and fully realised. Indeed, her experiences could have filled a whole novel in their own right. At one point, she describes how she considers it a ‘punishment’ from her father to ‘live out [her] life as a man in a woman’s body’. Mark Llewellyn has characterised neo-Victorianism as ‘[t]he desire to rewrite the historical narrative of that period by representing marginalised voices, new histories of sexuality, post-colonial viewpoints and other generally “different” versions of the Victorians’.  As the plot unravels, questions of gender identity and sexuality are interrogated, but the murder mystery remains centre stage. Intriguingly, the narrator frequently effaces her own experiences and instead looks outward, observing others. An unusual strawberry birthmark discourages people from looking at her too closely, a point which works in her favour. Jem notes that, since ‘[n]o one ever saw beyond [her] birthmark’, she was ‘born for disguise’: ‘I felt safe – watchful, protected, anonymous – behind it’. I found that Jem’s marginal or peripheral status was well suited to a detective novel – frequently overlooked, she enjoys a unique vantage point. Her disguise contributes to the novel’s atmosphere of mystery and concealment.

At first, I wasn’t wholly drawn in by the character’s narrative voice; I felt that it jarred in places, that Jem’s sense of self was a little anachronistic. However, I soon found myself absorbed in the microcosm of St Saviour’s and its cast of eccentric characters. As more about their personal lives was revealed, my sympathies were increasingly engaged. I was particularly interested in the book’s depiction of friendship – there were several unexpected pairings, with Jem close to both the womanising physician Dr Bain and the wide-eyed newcomer, the junior architect Will Quartermain. I was pleased by the way in which Thomson kept us guessing about Jem’s sexual attractions, opting for a less predictable path than one might expect from the novel’s opening pages.

The intimacy that comes with this first-person perspective is reinforced by the claustrophobic atmosphere of St Saviour’s, which is depicted in wonderfully grotesque fashion. As well as the grim wards full of sick bodies, there’s a burial ground teeming with corpses. Will must oversee its disinterment before the railway project can begin. The narrative also reaches beyond the confines of the hospital and into the streets of early Victorian London. The immediate locale is rumoured to be haunted by a ghostly Abbot. Will and Jem pursue a pauper boy through the labyrinthine slums. The characters venture out to visit the nearby public house or brothel, which is richly depicted. It is under the ownership of the garishly dressed and appropriately named Mrs Roseplucker. (Thomson has an almost Dickensian flair for names, branding a lusty doctor’s wife Mrs Catchpole.) Both gaudy and grotesque, Mrs Roseplucker’s reminded me of the vice dens of Ripper Street or The Crimson Petal and the White.

The setting and imagery are vividly Gothic and macabre. Thomson presents the reader with places which are greasy and filthy, slimy and rank. Many of her descriptions are tactile or olfactory and an unhealthy miasma seems to cling to the air about the hospital and the very pages of the novel. A tiny cottage amidst the burial ground looks as though ‘it had risen up from the putrid ground like some giant fungus’. At one point the distraught Mrs Catchpole scrabbles among the muddy graves to find a body, and the burial ground is later the site for a struggle and showdown. With a wry choice of analogy, the narrator describes how ‘the sticky clay walls were shredded with human remains, like chunks of suet in a Christmas pudding’. Images such as these could have become overwhelming but elsewhere the language is sparse and pared down, and they struck me as knowing rather than overdone. They enable the reader to inhabit St Saviour’s and its environs.

The plotting is – for the most part – deftly handled; Thomson lingers over particular episodes and conversations while retaining the sense of momentum needed in crime fiction. The book starts out a little unusually for a murder mystery, with the discovery of six tiny coffins stuffed with makeshift effigies and dirty rags. But after the first murder, the real bodies start piling up and it turns into a race against time as Jem fights to prove her own innocence and save her father from the noose. I felt that, once the murder plot unravelled, it almost unravelled too fast. As I was beginning to develop my own theories as to the culprit, there was a sudden and dramatic unveiling. At this stage, several characters were still in the frame and I would have rather liked to suspend the ‘reveal’ section of the narrative a little longer to eke out the tension. The dénouement is brilliantly and shockingly dark; connections are forged and conclusions drawn but I would have relished an even more detailed explanation of means and motive. The ending shifts from confession to confrontation, reflecting the tone of the narrative, which oscillates between introspection and action.

Ultimately, Beloved Poison is a pacy, well-plotted, and atmospheric murder mystery. While its depiction of the world of St Saviour’s and the central storyline are especially satisfying for those interested in the Victorians or medical history, the book undoubtedly has a much broader appeal. The gruesome imagery and claustrophobic atmosphere might not be to everyone’s tastes (particularly those who prefer their period fiction with bonnets and balls) but it’s a rich and vividly realised tale. One gets the impression Thomson took great pleasure in crafting the novel and the result is a deliciously macabre, sensational, and compelling read.

Watch this space for an upcoming review of Dark Asylum which landed on my doorstep this week! Both books are available to buy here.

Bibliography

Llewellyn, Mark, ‘What is Neo-Victorian Studies?’, Neo-Victorian Studies, 1:1 (2008), pp. 164–85.

Thomson, E.S., Beloved Poison (London: Constable, 2016).

 

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