Sent to me by Constable Books in exchange for an honest review.
Release Date: 03/03/16
Publisher: Constable Books
Format: Paperback, 400pp
Summed up in a word: Lurid
I received E. S. Thomson’s latest release Dark Asylum for review so I thought it wise to read part one Beloved Poison first. Beloved Poison is exceedingly dark, morbid and dramatic. I felt that it blended historical drama and murder mystery together so well. E. S. Thomson is a vivid, graphically detailed author who leads the reader through a labyrinth of gruesome historical fiction and dark mystery. There is a depth to this novel that must be applauded and Jem Flockhart is a superbly conflicted character who is certainly worth your attention. Full review below.
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.
There is so much going on in Beloved Poison that it is impossible for the reader not to get sucked in. ES Thomson is a dedicated historical writer who also crafted a mesmerising and gritty murder mystery tale. Set in London in the 1800s, where disease is rampant, the streets are coated with filth and the graveyards are filled to bursting. ES Thomson pulls the reader into a tale of deception, murder, high stakes and perilous investigations.
Beloved Poison is centred around Jem Flockhart, an apothecary assistant who is hiding her true identity in plain sight. Everyone must believe she is a man so she may one day inherit her father’s business. The severity of her father illness is in constant decline and she is constantly concerned with the future. She must hide her femininity to secure her father’s legacy. I truly admire Jem’s approach to her predicament and it was easy to invest in her story.
Jem’s ability to walk amongst men pretending to be one herself is dependant on many factors, but a birthmark that covers her face is the main one. I was pleased with how ES Thomson handled her story and she was the main reason I was captivated by the novel. Jem’s ability to handle all the flack that comes her way made me love her more and more. From the start I was certain that Beloved Poison was going to be dark, disturbed and gritty. But it started off reading a bit like an 18th century soap opera centred around a hospital. The drama in the hospital is at an all time high, with doctors clashing over progress and reputation.
But when one of the leading physicians is found dead, the plot morphs into a murder mystery. ES Thomson is a descriptive writer who is not in a rush to progress story. She puts the reader deep in the setting and builds the foundations around them. With untrustworthy characters, poisons and old scores to settle, ES Thomson challenges the reader to think hard about the outcome of the story.
Each detail is carefully researched or crafted to add plenty of nuances to both the mystery and of Jem’s relationships with those around her. Jem’s investigation into the relics and subsequent investigation into the death of Dr Bain was a satisfying plot to showcase how awful the 18th century really was. Thomson’s writing is skin-crawling at times, with vivid imagery and disturbingly realistic scenes of illness, disease or death. Though Jem’s goodness cuts through all of this darkness and makes it manageable. Her relationship with Will Quartermain is charming, uncertain and satisfying.
So it is not all bleak and serious. Just most of the time. This novel is not for everyone, it wasn’t what I imagined it would be but I am glad I had the opportunity to read it and I am eager to pick up the sequel Dark Asylum very soon indeed.
About E. S. Thomson
E. S. Thomson was born in Ormskirk, Lancashire. She has a PhD in the history of medicine and works as a university lecturer in Edinburgh. She was shortlisted for the Saltire First Book Award and the Scottish Arts Council First Book Award. Elaine lives in Edinburgh with her two sons.