Am I the only reader who finds Peter Robinson’s books a little dull? Heaven knows I’m a faithful fan of the standard English procedural murder mystery. Add flashback material that takes us into wartime Yorkshire and you’d think I’d be in pig heaven here. I had previously read Robinson’s In a Dry Season and found it slow, but Before the Poison didn’t feature Robinson’s Inspector Banks. The new protagonist is a Hollywood composer named Chris Lowndes who returns to his native northern England after the death of his wife. Chris buys, sight unseen, the rambling Kilnsgate House in a remote Yorkshire dale. Once there, he finds himself haunted by the house’s history and particularly by the tale of Grace Fox, gorgeous former resident, who was hanged for murdering her husband in 1953.
Basically, Chris sets out to clear Grace’s name. Did she poison her husband? If so, why? He was a chilly sadist, she had a handsome young lover. On the other hand, the death could have been a heart attack. The narrative alternates between invented chapters of a book of famous trials (which makes it clear that Grace was condemned by small-town 1950s morality) and Chris’s painstaking reconstruction of her life. Excerpts from Grace’s wartime diary are added about halfway through.
Painstaking: phone call by phone call, even the ones that aren’t returned. Every glass of Shiraz or single-malt Scotch Chris drinks. Every piece of music he listens to. Too much detail that did not, for me, contribute either characterization or tension. The strongest part of the book is Grace account of her years as a nurse in World War II, ranging from Europe to the South Seas and back. Unfortunately her terrifying adventures in the flight from Singapore were tangential to the Yorkshire narrative.
And in the end? I suppose the conclusion is subversive but I was too beaten down by the tedium to care.