The Poison Artist

Written by Johnathan Moore

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes.

The Poison Artist
Orion Publishing
RRP: £14.99
Released: February 11 2016

Dr. Caleb Maddox, a toxicologist researching pain and its effects on blood, is distraught at the break-up of the relationship with his girlfriend. This man is an enigma. To start with there is a mystery concerning the quarrel; what did he tell his partner that could make her react with such violence?  And how, when he seeks refuge and solace in a bar, can he be so enthralled  by a beautiful stranger that immediately she becomes the very focus of his existence, even more alluring in that she disappears into the night, leaving  nothing  but the memory, taking only his telephone number.

Within a few pages the reader has lost sympathy with Maddox, however intelligent (and he’s good at his job, heading a department) he has no emotional resilience. He drinks too much and is a total pushover for women. It’s with relief that one finds him making some attempt to abandon this messy private life to concentrate on the case which is absorbing his pathologist friend, Henry, and which should be his own preoccupation.  A number of corpses have been retrieved from San Francisco Bay and Henry has found marks of a stun gun and electrodes on the bodies indicating not only foul play but hideous torture before drowning. It’s the presence of sewerage in the bodies that provides not only a crucial clue but a fine account of the sea search carried out by the two scientists looking for outfall pipes in the vicinity of the Golden Gate.

San Francisco furnishes the setting for this strange story of men drowning below the famous bridge, a city of precipitous roads and rattling street cars, of Victorian mansions and shuttered cabins carpeted by drifting sand, a city haunted by a mystery woman in an elegant vintage car.

As the case becomes spiced with clues: the dumping ground  where bodies entered the water, the exotic drugs in their systems, so the bewildering love affair runs parallel, the couple’s separate backgrounds being marginally clarified: the woman’s name, her childhood - revelations which prompt  some confidences from Maddox. This serves as a guide, a series of nudges for the reader who had found the woman cloying and manipulative where the man was a broken reed. Now opinions may be revised and it’s almost satisfying to find the man starting to get his priorities straight. He is moving in on the killer, redeeming himself. This reader was there before him of course, had identified the murderer, and the part Henry, the pathologist and best friend, had played in what had seemed a rather ridiculous travesty. Neat, one thinks, but one should have known sooner, all the clues were there making an obvious crescendo for any crime writer accustomed to ingenious plots.

And then everything blew up in my face.

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