About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Before the Poison by Peter Robinson

Before the Poison by Peter Robinson – Chris Lowndes, after 35 years in American, has returns to his Yorkshire roots. His wife, Laura, has suffered a lingering death and his children are grown. He decides to come home.

With lots of money made as the composer of movie scores in Hollywood he purchases a large old home in the countryside, Kilnsgate, near the town of Richmond.

The house has been a rental property for decades and has a substantial amount of furniture from earlier owners, the Fox family. Interested in the background of his home Chris is startled to learn that 57 years ago in 1953 Grace Fox had been hung after being convicted of murdering her husband on New Year’s Eve by poisoning him.

With time on his hands, his only commitment is to write a sonata, Chris pursues his curiosity about what took place in Kilnsgate. He is also diverting his mind from the painful memories of Laura’s illness and death.

At the same time the book contains excerpts from Grace’s trial and later her journal of wartime experiences as a nurse. The wartime entries are striking in their power.

Chris seeks out information on the lives of the Fox family. In particular, he longs to learn more about the beautiful Grace. What could have happened in her life?

In her trial the forensic evidence is actually ambivalent on whether the high level of potassium in the body of Ernest Fox was caused by an injection of potassium or the result of a natural heart attack. There is evidence that his heart was not in good condition.

In real life today I doubt there would have been a trial. There is no conclusive evidence of murder.

Robinson does present a convincing picture of early 1950’s England, with a puritanical streak, that would prosecute a woman considered immoral on weak forensic evidence.

I hearkened back to the poisoning cases I had read about in The Invention of Murder – How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders from the 19th Century where several women were convicted and hung on flimsy evidence of poisoning. 150 years ago experts, actually incompetents, were eager to find evidence of poisoning. Robinson’s book would suggest it was little different 60 years ago.

In his personal life Chris makes a comfortable adjustment back to England. He is attracted to the lovely Heather, his real estate agent.

Rural Yorkshire is a rugged land with unpredictable weather, usually bad, in the fall and winter. For a Canadian the descriptions of snow and cold were alittle overdone. It is definitely cold in the middle of the English winter but it is a long way from the -40 much of Canada endures in mid-winter.

Chris thoughtfully follows the evidence he assembles. It is not an overtly dramatic investigation. He is an average man on a quest. Tension does build as Chris learns information that leads him to question the guilt of Grace.

I thought of it as a graceful book. It is well written with some twists I had not forseen. I read it mainly because it was the 2012 winner of the Arthur Ellis Award as Canada’s top mystery fiction. In a few days I will pass on my thoughts on 3 of the 5 books that were on the shortlist this year.

Before the Poison will be my first read in the 6th Canadian Book Challenge which started at the Book Mine Set blog on July 1. (July 27/12)


  1. Surely those Victorians you mention, who were eager to find evidence of poisoning, did so because there was so much poisoning going on?

  2. Bill - A fine, fine review for which thanks. It's so interesting too how the mores and values of the 1950's are juxtaposed with the modern world that Lowndes has inhabited. And I really do like Robinson's work. This one goes on my TBR list, no doubt.

  3. Dr. Evangelicus: They had as much evidence of poisoning as their ancestors 200 years earlier had of witchcraft when they were convicting and executing women.

  4. Margot: Thanks for the review. Our views for societal mores and values has shifted dramatically over the 57 years covered in the book between 1953 and 2010.

  5. Don't know if I"ll read this, but good point, Bill, on poisonings and innocent women being convicted and executed for alleged witchcraft.

  6. kathy d.: Thanks for the comment. Suspect science is still convicting people. In Canada we had several people convicted of shaking babies whose convictions were reversed when the "expert" pathologist was proven incompetent and his "scientific" principles unfounded.