Years ago when Auntie M was manning the booth for Mystery Review magazine at a Bouchercon convention, she recognized Peter Robinson right away. He was tall and had a friendly look, emphasized by an enigmatic smile that said he knew he was going to charm you. The author of the popular Chief Inspector Banks series has certainly done that with his new stand alone, Before the Poison, a departure from his usual style, and filled with surprises.
In contrast to Banks he gives us Chris Lowndes, a widower who has made a successful career in the US for years by composing music scores for films. “I had promised myself that when I turned sixty I would go home.” And so he does, but he travels alone back to his Yorkshire roots and a house in the dales where he tries to contain the grief that still catches at him over the death of his wife, Laura.
Kilnsgate House surprises him with its size, larger than he’d expected, and with its rooms holding the secrets of the past once Chris learns the house was the scene of a murder over fifty years before. Grace Fox, the young, beautiful wife of prominent Dr. Ernest Fox, was supposed to have poisoned him one snowbound night. She was arrested and brought to trial, found guilty and subsequently hanged.
The house contains artifacts and belongings from Grace, and Chris becomes captivated by her story, talking to locals about the story and researching archives. He soon convinces himself she was innocent, and sets about unearthing the true story of the events that led up to that fateful night.
Banks alternates between the Chris’ point of view and excerpts from a book titled Famous Trials concerning the Grace Fox case. It’s an effective device, bringing the early 1950’s to life as Chris discovers more than he bargained for as he delves into secrets from his own past. Grief does strange things, Chris soon acknowledges. But can it bring a person more in touch with their own sensitivity? “I had thought it was my choice to become interested in grace’s story but was it? I remembered the sense I had had on first approaching Kilnsgate that the house was somehow waiting for me.”
Yet even as he investigates what he comes to call his “Grace Fox theories,” Chris wonders at his actions and the path he’s set himself on, admitting his foolishness to his charming lunch companion: “Here I am, to all intents an purposed a sensible, reasonable, successful man, spending my time trying to prove the innocence of a woman who has hanged nearly sixty years ago. Insane, isn’t it?”
As Chris continues his search he will come across Grace’s granddaughter, Louise, who will assist him in his search. They visit Grace’s grave with its poignant Tennyson inscription, and when Louise compiles a DVD of her findings for Chris, he is startled to hear Grace’s voice singing a Tosca aria. The lyrics provide a window into Grace’s soul and impacting the new music he’s trying to write, even as Chris pushes on to the story’s resolution, where a monster is revealed.
Robinson has done his homework, both in the world of music and in the scenes set during WWII. This is the story of one man’s obsession, and how he must learn to confront his own ghosts.