Before the Poison, by Peter Robinson


Well, I finished the book, and that’s more praise than it sounds. That said, my reaction upon finishing the book was “Bwuh? …sorry, don’t follow?”

Hopefully, I can summarize the plot without giving too much away. Indeed, the apparent central question never is really decided one way or the other.

The book jacket blurb plot synopsis: Chris Lowndes arrives in Yorkshire, having carried through with the plans he’d made with his now-dead wife to return to his childhood home, in a broad sense–he’s purchased a house in the Dales that’s stood empty for some years, with only a sporadic tourist rental. The house agent seems mildly discomfited about his inquiry into why the house has been, in essence, unoccupied for so long; he suspect there’s something she’s not telling him.

And sure enough, there is, and it’s a whopper: there’s been a death in the house sixty years earlier. The husband, a cold-fish doctor, dies in the night. Caught in a snowstorm, the wife and her guests cannot leave or even communicate with the outside world until the snow is cleared and the officials arrive. Was he poisoned or did he die of a heart attack? The circumstances are of concern to officials, but the forensic evidence isn’t conclusive one way or the other, due in no small part to the time elapsed between death and inquest.

The wife is tried, found guilty and executed.

This is not wholly a surprise to the readers: Banks has set this plotline up quite clearly from page one, with the “contemporary” account of the wife’s execution, before we’ve even met the narrator. Even the question of her motivation is made fairly clear during the course of the trial: she has a young lover, and her husband had been an emotionally cold man. Divorce is not particularly an option, not least for the shame and social ostracization involved.

Well, maybe not. The death or her reasons for doing….well, whatever she did or did not do to her husband. The book leaves the did she/didn’t she question rather up in the air.

But I have a couple of problems that begin way back at the beginning of the book. And hopefully, I can explain them without giving away too much about the denouement and conclusion.

Why did the legal system, in 1953, decide that quickly that Grace had killed her husband? The evidence truly can be fit into either conclusion–an overdose of potassium can stop a person’s heart, but a severe heart attack does also release significant amounts of potassium into the victim’s bloodstream. The prosecution’s case is shaky but it’s generally agreed among the people surviving in 2010 that the defence didn’t even try.

Why did Lowndes, in 2010, go to such great lengths to investigate the dead past? He’s justifiably distraught about his wife’s recent death after he (plot point I can’t give away) but we don’t find the precise distressing circumstances out until the last twenty pages of a 350 page book, and I didn’t really get a sense of just how distraught he was through the previous 320 pages. Somewhat, to be sure, but beginning the process of moving on. Even after rereading the conclusion, I’m not entirely sure why Lowndes feels there is a connection between himself and Grace?

My polite reaction: I don’t think I’m the correct audience for the book, but then I was expecting a tale somewhere on the mystery/psychological thriller/suspense spectrum. This strikes me more as a book about a man’s exploration of history, and contemplating his life and life choices.

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