Before the Poison
Peter Robinson’s latest novel, Before the Poison (368 pages, Willliam Morrow, $25), tells the story of Chris Lowndes, a Hollywood musician and composer, whose many successes with film music has led him to leave Hollywood after thirty years and return to Yorkshire in England, where he was from originally. Now a rich man, he negotiates from afar to buy a splendid country house in an isolated corner of Yorkshire, near a village called Richmond, and there he hopes to come to terms with the death of his wife, perhaps write the piano sonata that has hounded him for several years, and of course do the odd film job that was sure to come his way.
Heather Barlow, his forty-something redhead estate agent (realtor) has sold him a house with quite a history, it turns out. She tells him the first time they are flirting over drinks (she is unhappily married to a businessman), that in the early fifties a doctor died in the house during a snow storm, and after several days what had seemed to be a heart attack became a murder case. Grace Fox, the doctor’s wife, was accused of his murder. At the time, she was carrying on an affair with a young artist some twenty years her junior—she was herself just forty and her husband was some years older, and he had a bad heart.
The trial, which comes to us in bits and pieces throughout the narrative, was something of a travesty. Almost all the evidence was circumstantial, and more was said about her morals (in seducing a younger man) than about her capacity to kill her husband. A nurse during World War II, she explains her own attempts to save her husband’s life, but those attempts are all turned against her. Who better prepared to kill her husband, the prosecutor argues, but a nurse who knew her way around her husband’s medical bag. Grace Fox was hanged for the murder in April 1953.
Chris finds himself haunted by this history, and he becomes obsessed with finding out about Grace, whose sewing room he uses as his study, and perhaps proving her innocence.
What becomes his obsession with Grace has its source in the recent loss of his own wife of many years, who succumbed to cancer but a few month before. Chris’s grief was intense, and he still finds himself slipping to serious, incapacitating depression over the loss of his wife.
As he follows up leads and does a great deal of detective work about Grace Fox, he finds himself falling in love with his friend Heather Barlow. In this small town atmosphere, their budding relationship is commented on in various ways, and no one approves. Chris is not sure he wants to conduct an affair with a married woman, but before long her husband leaves her and she is free to date if she chooses. And it seems that she does.
Chris’s searches take us back into the fifties courtroom, and then further back to the life of a nurse during World War Two. All this different writing—the trial record and Grace’s own journal—are written in a completely different style form the novel itself, and they are entirely engaging.
Even more compelling, though, is Chris’s own confrontation with himself and his own memories of his wife and their last moments together. When the connections between this story and Graces history are made explicit, that goes a long way to explaining why Chris has become as caught up in this story as he is.