Especially for Halloween, Beloved Poison is a grisly gothic mystery steeped in Victorian grime and macabre medical practices. The story follows Jem Flockhart, apothecary to St Saviour’s Infirmary, as she pieces together the mystery of six tiny coffins discovered in the Infirmary’s old chapel. The writer is an academic who specialises in the history of medicine, and that knowledge certainly comes through in the gory detail. The story is dark, bleak and atmospheric—if you’re looking for a story with plenty of gothic atmosphere, it won’t disappoint.
Jem is an excellent character—she lives her life as a man, a necessity her father insists upon, so that she can continue the family business. Her masculine build and a birth mark on her face make it easier for her to maintain this disguise. The role leaves Jem feeling separate from both the men and women who surround her, set apart by her secret, but she also recognises the freedom that her role gives her. She’s secretly in love with Eliza, the beautiful daughter of one of the infirmary’s surgeons, but she’s sure her love could never be returned. When a young architect, Will, is charged with clearing St Saviour’s graveyard in time for the old infirmary to be relocated, Jem finds real friendship for the first time. I like the way Thomson handles the gender roles—it feels aware and considered, and there is also some insightful observation of women’s roles at the time and how those limits impacted on individuals. While the characters aren’t always aware of the injustices that surround them, the story makes them clear.
The world of the story is a small one, claustrophobic, with a limited cast of characters. This adds to the atmosphere of the story, but left me wondering if Thomson could really surprise me with the reveal. But in the end, I wasn’t disappointed by the conclusion of the mystery. Despite the gothic atmosphere, this story brings readers face to face with some grim social realities—the brutal practices of Victorian medicine, child poverty and the limited roles of women. Because of that unflinching approach to the bleak setting, it’s fitting that the story doesn’t have an entirely happy ending.
My only criticism was that the story occasionally drops retrospective hints about the mystery while otherwise not feeling like it’s written in a retrospective style. It’s a small thing, though, and it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of and immersion in the story.
I should say an especial thank you to book blogger Hit or Miss Books for the recommendation.