Welcome to Victorian London’s grimy underbelly!
Beloved Poison by E S Thompson
‘I stood on the threshold of my room, my hand on the door knob.’
St Saviour’s Infirmary is a crumbling, cramped, noisome old building awaiting demolition. The building is to make way for a railway bridge, and its graveyard is to be emptied in preparation. St Saviour’s staff represent both the best and worst of nineteenth century medical practice: some doctors attempt to introduce hygienic practices while others continue scorn change. Jem Flockhart is an apothecary at St Saviour’s Infirmary, an observant outsider with a secret or two to hide. William Quartermain, a junior architect, has been sent to St Saviour’s to oversee the emptying of the graveyard. William Quartermain is to share Jem Flockart’s room, much to Jem’s disgust.
Jem comes across six tiny coffins inside the infirmary’s old chapel, and is intent on discovering where they came from and what their significance is. But Jem has stumbled across something which others wish to remain secret, and for which they’ll commit murder.
Jem’s search encompasses the grisly, bloody world of the surgeons, from the operating theatre to the dissecting table, as well as the squalor of Newgate. Jem has a dangerous adversary, and a number of different mysteries to try to solve. In the meantime, St Saviour’s end draws nearer. A doctor is murdered. The dead are exhumed from the graves and the living try to make sense of some awful choices. In some ways, this novel reminded me of ‘Pure’ by Andrew Miller: both share the horrors of exhuming mass graves, of the impact of change on those least able to embrace it. But the stories, and the secrets, are very different. In ‘Beloved Poison’ Jem Flockart’s quest is driven by a sense of loss (past, present and future). The exhumation of mass graves is an important peripheral event, whereas in ‘Pure’ it is a central defining event.
Ms Thompson has created an unforgettable story: I can almost smell St Saviour’s, feel the dirt in Newgate and envisage the death on the gallows. It’s also a difficult book to put down: what will happen to Jem next? What is the truth behind the tiny coffins? The various doctors become clear (and differently flawed) characters, while William Quartermain tries to make sense of a very different world. There are many different forms of poison in this novel, many ways of encountering harm in a world which I’m sure that William Hogarth would have recognised.
Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Hachette Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel for review purposes.