The Blackheath Poisonings: A Victorian Murder Mystery by Julian Symons
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"The extraordinary series of crimes popularly called the Blackheath Poisonings took place in the early 1890s, at the time when the Mortimer family had lived in that suburb on the edge of London for nearly half a century."
So begins Julian Symons' The Blackheath Poisonings (1978), subtitled A Victorian Murder Mystery. The adjective "Victorian" made me quite apprehensive as in the past I had been unable to enjoy or even finish many period-piece mysteries. But this novel by Symons is among the best of the many books of his that I have reviewed so far on Goodreads. Very well written, with captivating plot, it does not feel dated at all - not really surprising as the prose is not even 40 years old - and the characters read quite contemporary despite obvious differences in social norms and cultural expectations between the 1890s and today.
The events take place mainly in the suburbs of London, in two splendid houses where the members of the extended family of Charles Mortimer's descendants reside. The mansions are so peculiar and full of character - one is colloquially called "church" and the other "white elephant" - that they almost seem to be actors in the plot. While the first death caused by a sudden gastric problem is originally attributed to natural food poisoning, the circumstances of the second death force the police to commence an investigation. Eventually the mystery morphs into a court drama as we witness the trial of one of the main characters on the charge of poisonings. Most of the plot is told in the third-person narration, but a substantial portion is presented through the diaries of a young man just entering his adult life.
I like the novel more as an account of well-to-do peoples' everyday lives in the Victorian times than as a mystery. Two scenes make the strongest impression given the vivid prose and the author's sharp eye for details. The extended sequence that portrays the last day of the victim's life shows the whole process of dying with brutal candor and reminds me of Tolstoy's masterpiece; I wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Symons had used the
Death of Ivan Illich
as a source of inspiration for his writing: he did quite a brilliant a job. The other memorable passage is the poetry evening scene - a program of recitation and songs - so life-like in its portrayal that I feel I have personally participated in the event that happened over 120 years ago.
In the trial part of the novel the reader has an opportunity to meet Sir Charles Russell, the famous barrister who leads the defense team. Sir Charles reminds me a little of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe character: his presumed genius and somewhat pompous behavior bring the comparison. The verdict in the trial does not end the plot: in a sense it only provides the setup for the denouement, which is a peculiar mixture of the somewhat unexpected and the somewhat disappointing.
Overall the novel is a very good read and in places it seems close to real literature thus transcending the mystery genre. And that the ending fizzles a little? I would like to see a modern-day bestseller than does not disappoint in the end.
The scariest thing I realized while reading the novel is that the year of my birth is closer to Victorian times than to today. Ugh.
Three and a half stars.
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