Tony Strong’s The Poison Tree

Just as a warning: this book has extensive sexual content of the sort likely to discomfit all but the most broadminded readers. (Just as a test: did the movie The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and Her Lover make you squeamish? Then don’t read this book. Trust me.) Hopefully, I’ll be able to review it in a no more than PG-13 way, although this will involve leaving a number of possibly relevant details out.

The book begins as our protagonist, Terry Williams, returns to Oxford in order to complete her degree after her (heterosexual) marriage has failed and her (homosexual) relationship with photographer Mo has not culminated in anything worth continuing. She is offered a part time lecturer’s position to support herself while finishing her thesis. Unwittingly, she purchases a house in which a gruesome murder recently took place–one of the tenants, an Oxford student–was murdered recently in a particularly unpleasant way. She begins by merely inquiring about the event but is sucked into her own investigation of the crime, despite the fact that the police have investigated the crime already and closed the case due to a combination of the only plausible suspects having cast iron alibis and Oxford pressuring them to hush things up.

The likeliest suspect to our protagonist is the one whom the police had already cleared of any blame as a result of a cast iron alibi discovered prior to Oxford hushing everything up. She persists in pursuing this train of inquiry to the point of obsession despite all the friends, police and forensic experts whom she contacts attempting to convince her that she is mistaken. As she delves deeper into the case, she uncovers ever more uncomfortable sexual practices conducted by her prime suspect and his friends, which serve largely to muddy her investigative waters. As the book continues, it becomes ever clearer that there is a sexual predator stalking the homosexuals, both real and perceived, in the Oxford academic community–one who is intimately acquainted with Terry and is out to silence her. As the mystery investigation sucks her in, Terry realizes that her own academic dreams are coming to naught as her students evaporate away in search of an easier seminar, such as Romantic Poetry. This culminates in finding out that the “chair” (academic position) she had been angling for and the funding attached have been awarded to another school within the university…and with it, any hopes of completing her own degree and gaining a teaching position.

Nothing is quite as it seems in this book. Is Terry convinced her neighbor done it because she has reasonable evidence of his guilt or because he’s an unpleasantly slimy ladies’ man who puts the moves on her because he relishes the challenge of ‘converting’ a lesbian to heterosexuality…and she just wants him to be guilty because she dislikes him so? Is the police officer in charge of the case lying to Terry in order to get into her pants, or is he telling the truth about both the investigation and his own motives? I checked this book out ‘by mistake’–I was looking for the Erin Kelly book of the same title–but I read it anyway, and am simultaneously glad I did and desperately wishing there were some way to disinfect my mind to remove what I have read. The short version? this book is NC-17 to say the least–if sex in peculiar permutations bothers you, don’t read this book. The slightly more analytical version: it’s either a brilliant skewering of perceptions of gender roles and societal treatment of victims of sexual crimes combined with a sendup of academic infighting OR a prurient attempt at titillating an unsuspecting audience with lurid descriptions of sexual crimes suitable only for the kind of gents’ magazines that get sold wrapped in plain brown wrappers. Your choice.

Overall, I’d say that Father Knox would be proud of this suspense novel: it breaks all the tenets of the ‘cozy’ mystery, starting with an unreliable narrator and ending with the unlikeable characters all being eliminated in favor of the most helplessly harmless unlikely suspect.


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