A review of Postscript to Poison by Dorothy Bowers
The moral of the story is if you are a cantankerous old woman despised by all, do not announce that you are going to alter your will. It never ends well. And, P.S, if you are planning the perfect murder, do not be tempted to make some final embellishments. They will be your undoing.
Postscript to Poison, Dorothy Bowers’ debut crime novel, originally published in 1938 and now reissued by Moonstone Press, is an impressive and enjoyable piece of work from an author I had not come across before. What the story may have lacked in intricacies of plotting, it more than makes up for in the quality of Bowers’ writing and, particularly, her sharp characterisations. Often the reader can be overwhelmed with characters barely indistinguishable from each other. Here, though, Bowers, takes care to draw each of her principal protagonists, such that even when they disappear from the narrative for a while, their characteristics, habits, and foibles stay with you.
Bowers also has a profound sense of place and nature. Her descriptions of Minsterbridge and its weather fall just the right side of purple prose, giving an added dimension to a tale that is told with vigour and a sense of purpose, the reader provided with enough information to understand what is going on, but not bogged down with unnecessary detail. She also plays fair with her readership, the clues needed to solve whodunit are sprinkled throughout the story.
Chief Inspector Pardoe of Scotland Yard, her go-to detective in Bowers’ series of five murder mysteries, is an intriguing character. He is human enough to be irritated that a new murder case has led to him having to delay a well-earned holiday in the Cotswolds, but earnest enough to throw himself into the investigations with gusto. Behind his urbane, polished exterior is a steely determination to see justice prevail. He is a character the reader can warm to, neither too bogged down in details to make following him a chore nor too intuitive to leave us scratching our heads. I shall be interested to see how his character develops.
By the standards of so-called Golden Age murder mysteries, the plot is both a little mundane and hackneyed. Cornelia Lakeland is a dictatorial old woman, who rules over the household at Lakeland with a rod of iron, making the lives of her step-grandchildren, cousins Jenny and Carol, a misery. They will lose the prospect of inheriting their share of the family fortune if either take jobs or get married without her permission. Her companion is worried about the prospects of a legacy and the staff of the house have their own reasons for wishing for the old woman’s demise. There are motives aplenty for Pardoe to get his teeth into.
Having been ill for most of the summer, Cornelia is now well enough to go downstairs. The first thing she arranges is for an interview with her solicitor, Rennie, with a view to altering her will. During the night before the meeting, she falls ill and dies. The post-mortem established that she was poisoned. A series of anonymous letters point the finger at the Doctor, Tom Faithful. Jenny’s beau, a Polish film star, was let into the house that evening. A mysterious stranger was seen lurking around the house.
The maids hold the key to unravelling the mystery. Emma returns some of Cornelia’s letters which she had stolen and a piece of bandage found on the body of Hettie, murdered for what she might have overheard, confirm to Pardoe what has been going on n the house. In a dramatic finale, in which the good Chief Inspector, is injured, the arrest is made.
I found it an entertaining read and will follow Pardoe’s adventures with interest. Bowers is a writer well worth looking up.