Beloved Poison | E.S. Thomson | 2016 (3 March) | Constable | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is the mid 19th-century and St Saviour’s monastery in London has had its day. Its ruin, which began with the Reformation three hundred years before, is about to be completed with its demolition. All that will be left is its hospital, which treats the local sick while educating its doctors with dissections that leave nothing of the dead to bury. Young Jem Flockhart is an apothecary at the infirmary, carrying on a family tradition that is under threat due to a father’s illness. Jem isn’t your usual young man – she is a woman, brought up as a boy and then a man by her father, her chest bound, making keeping a distance from others essential. But when William Quartermain arrives with the grim task of exhuming the skeletons from their graves in the soon to be demolished St Saviours, Jem begins to feel that she might have a friend after all. She’s going to need one.
One day six small coffins are found within the walls of the chapel. Inside are no bones but instead dolls and dried flowers. There are also names inside and one in particular resonates with Jem. The discovery seems to upset some of the hospital doctors, including the handsome and charismatic Dr Bain and, when the coffins are stolen during an act of murder, Jem and Will are determined to discover their meaning, a task that will provide a welcome distraction from their other concerns. The coffins leave a trail that take Jem and Will across London, into its poorest, most dangerous corners, its destitute tenements and even the cells of Newgate. And all the time Jem and Will feel eyes upon them, their task made ever more lethal by the evil acts of a murderer.
Beloved Poison is a marvellously atmospheric Victorian mystery that plunges us into a world that has outlived its use, challenged by the new world that will replace it. St Saviour’s monastery belongs to another time but its demolition is a horrendous thing for Will who has to move its graves. What an appalling task, not least because over the centuries the elements have moved around the contents of the disturbed ground. Meanwhile modern science holds sway in the infirmary under the control of its bickering doctors. We watch a leg amputation done by a doctor who prides himself on his speed but not on his cleanliness – it’s horrific reading about the conditions under which these surgeries were carried out.
E.S. Thomson immerses us in a fascinating world. St Saviour’s feels like a small island confined within the City of London. It’s patrolled by the lady almoners who keep watch on its patients and staff. Having been brought up at the hospital, Jem seems to move between the groups of people who live and work there and yet, of course, she has a secret to keep that means that she must keep to herself. It’s only when Will comes along that she discovers the bravery to try and find herself.
The mystery is deliciously creepy and enhanced so much by the wonderful setting and such strong, unusual characters. I enjoy Victorian mysteries so much – I can’t get enough of them – and Beloved Poison is a particularly enjoyable one – dark, satisfying and rich.