Let it be said at the outset that BEFORE THE POISON is not part of Peter Robinson’s beloved Inspector Banks series. This stand-alone effort is more of a character study than a mystery, which may disappoint some fans of Robinson’s outstanding work.
Chris Lowndes is a musical composer laboring in the area of film soundtracks. He himself is quick to note that if a movie viewer notices his music, he hasn’t done it properly, which pretty much sums up the man himself: he is certainly visible, but does not seek the spotlight. Lowndes has lived in the Los Angeles area for nearly a quarter-century, but as BEFORE THE POISON begins, he is returning to his native Yorkshire environs in an attempt to recover from the death of his beloved wife. He buys a rambling, isolated mansion known as Kilnsgate House, a residence seemingly perfect for him to compose music in relative silence. Yet he senses a presence in the house, not necessarily of a ghost or spirit, but nonetheless detectable.
"Fans of British drawing room mysteries will find much to enjoy within [Robinson's] dark and brooding prose and the very leisurely pace with which the story unfolds."
Lowndes begins an investigation on his own and discovers that around 50 years ago, the house was owned by a physician named Edward Fox. Fox’s wife, Grace, was convicted of poisoning him and hung for the crime. Interestingly enough, Lowndes attended primary school in close proximity to the site of the hanging and is drawn to the story. Grace was very attractive and much younger than her husband; she, in fact, had taken a lover, an element that convinced the jury at her trial that she had done away with her husband. Lowndes becomes increasingly convinced that Grace is innocent of the crime and becomes obsessed with either proving such or, barring that, establishing some mitigating circumstance for her actions. He travels from Paris to South Africa to do so, painstakingly interviewing those few individuals who were acquainted with Grace before and during the trial, and seeking documentation that might shed some light on exactly what had taken place in his house over a half-century before.
At the same time, Lowndes is slowly drawn toward Heather Barlow, the real estate agent who had listed the Fox property, and who is of some assistance to him in locating the people and documents that he seeks. It is only near the end of the book that Lowndes attains the answers --- or something like them --- that he seeks, while at the same time solving another minor mystery that had become the stuff of legend in the area. The etiology of Lowndes’s obsession with the house --- and with Grace Fox --- is also revealed, and is somewhat startling, to say the least.
While the ending was inventive, it is doubtful that Robinson’s regular readership will be left with much other than a yearning for a return to the more familiar surroundings of Inspector Banks. What the book does share with the Banks chronology, however, is Robinson’s ability to create razor-sharp characterization in just a few sentences and to create a mood with a feather touch. Fans of British drawing room mysteries will find much to enjoy within his dark and brooding prose and the very leisurely pace with which the story unfolds. Those who have admired Robinson’s other work should take pains to recommend BEFORE THE POISON to that audience, given that Robinson is not ordinarily associated with that sub-genre.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on February 27, 2012