The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder by Linda Stratmann
Publication date: 22 March 2016
Genre: Non Fiction, Science, History
Length: 320 pages
Published by: Yale University Press, London
Available at: Amazon.co.uk, Goodreads
My Rating: 4 out of 5
Murder by poison alarmed, enthralled, and in many ways encapsulated the Victorian age. Linda Stratmann’s dark and splendid social history reveals the nineteenth century as a gruesome battleground where poisoners went head-to-head with authorities who strove to detect poisons, control their availability, and bring the guilty to justice. She corrects many misconceptions about particular poisons and documents how the evolution of issues such as marital rights and the legal protection of children impacted poisonings. Combining archival research with a novelist’s eye, Stratmann charts the era’s inexorable rise of poison cases both shocking and sad.
I received an ebook ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to NetGalley and Yale University Press for providing me with this copy.
Linda Stratmann is best known as a Crime Fiction writer, and confesses a fascination with the Victorian era, and Victorian Crime. It feels as though this book is a culmination of the research which goes into her Victorian Crime novels.
The narrative voice maintains a Dickensian vibe in between quotes from newspapers, essays, letters, court records, trial records, and other published sources from the era. It feels comfortable and fitting.
There is a lot of passion in this book. Stratmann’s Author’s Note explains that although she avoids gory gruesome details in her Frances Doughty novels, in this book she will not spare the reader’s stomach. She also explains that she doesn’t intend the book to be a compendium of poison murders. Rather than present a list of unconnected, renowned cases, it is a story of “a duel of wits and resources”. Stratmann tells the stories of the poison cases, the characters involved, the fate of the victim, and who got punished and how they were convicted. They are all worthy of Miss Marple, Poirot, and Jessica Fletcher. The motives for murder are mostly passion, greed or revenge, but a couple are shockingly cold, seemingly just for the sake of the act of murder itself.
Each case described justifies its place in the book, showing how it affected policy and law-making; how both poisons were sold, and how poisoning prosecutions were conducted. Newspaper coverage at the time becomes part of these stories, influencing public opinion.
Notable figures in the emerging science of toxicology working to develop poison detection techniques add to the drama. Vengeful acts weren’t only reserved for the perpetrators of poisonings. In this competitive circle of innovation is a dramatic story of pride, jealousy, shattered reputations, misappropriated glory, and accusations of sabotage.
The Secret Poisoner paints a picture of Victorian society, before welfare reforms, and at the birth of modern science. Ugly characteristics of human beings sit alongside the more noble attributes. Even if non-fiction isn’t your genre of choice, this is still a page-turner full of dubious characters and unexpected twists.