on 22 November 2011
I will start by saying that I am an avid Peter Robinson fan, and have read all of his DCI Banks books and his short stories, and loved every one (even Badboy!).
I too didn't realise this wasn't a Banks story until at least half way through, by which point it seemed unlikely he was going to make an appearance.
what is missing in this book are the pen-pictures; I felt like I knew Banks, I had a perfect picture in my head of what he was like (nothing like he was in the TV series I might add), what his colleagues were like etc, due to Robinson's descriptive writng style- I even down loaded some of the music mentioned in his books!
It doesn't seem to happen in this book, the characters aren't developed as well and I didn't feel them at all. I can't even remember the lead characters name. Yorkshire however, is, as always eloquentley and passionately discribed and makes me want to live there.
Also, I could finish a Banks book in a couple of days, this took me weeks as it's much more 'put-downable'.
A good enough book, but nowhere near his best
Before the Poison is one of those books that grips you from the very first page and never lets go with an encapsulating fluidity that you come to expect from Peter Robinson - certainly from my experience! Immediately transported back to April 1953 we follow the final 15 painful seconds of Grace Fox's life as she walks to the gallows, her dignity intact, following her conviction for the murder of her husband Dr Ernest Fox earlier that year.
Once at the gallows, she was placed in position over the chalked "T" on the trapdoor, and the assistant pinioned her ankles with a leather strap. Mr. Pierrepoint took from his pocket a white cotton hood, which he placed over Grace's head, then he carefully and gently adjusted the leather-sheathed noose around her neck. When all was to his satisfaction, he stepped back, removed the safety pin and pushed the lever away from him in one sharp, swift motion. The trapdoor opened and Grace fell to her death.
There's something mystical about this book, something I can't quite put my finger on but the house, the surrounds, the back story and Chris Lowndes all combine to deliver a breathtaking narrative that is overwhelmingly captivating. When Robinson first introduced Kilnsgate House - Yorkshire - it didn't take long before I was swept up in the romanticism and began to ponder if a hostile takeover was possible. I wanted Lowndes out of the house and I wanted to move in - at any cost! Moving from room to room as our protagonist explores his new surroundings I imagined lighting a log fire, cooking in the kitchen and sitting down to compose a piano sonata on the grand piano. It's quite frightening the hold Robinson's narrative had over me and I honestly began to believe the house existed and it was well within my grasp. Powerful stuff!
It's been a while since I read Robinson's last book - DI Banks series in August last year - and I have to admit I'd forgotten just how good he is. One of the things I love about the author is his obvious love for music and classic cinematography and he shares this passion in abundance in Before the Poison. Sleepless nights in front of the fire, whisky in hand and company in the form of Julie Christie or Celia Johnson all helping Lowndes settle in to his new home - my home - far from his idyllic life in Los Angeles. When I read a book, I often find myself creating an ideal soundtrack in my head to fit the novel but Robinson has done all the work for me. From Schubert's Impromptu to Purcell's Dido and Aeneas - a most beautiful aria - he steps up his knowledge with a little Ella Fitzgerald and Marvin Gaye to add a little variety. When an author makes you hunt out Janet Baker's haunting rendition of Dido and Aeneas in the late 60's you know he's done his job. Magnificent.
Before the Poison is an intelligent, multi layered novel with the odd surprise or two thrown in for good measure - one admission towards the end of the book shocked me and although handled with great sensitivity was completely unexpected. Robinson creatively reconstructs Fox's trial with articles taken from "Famous Trials" in 1953 and then seamlessly takes the reader back to the war torn era of the early forties as he shares entries from Grace's private journal. Robinson's attention to detail is amazing and I was blown away by how he introduces the insignificant blemish on Fox's skin caused by sunlight early in the piece and later crafts the story to explain how this came about - attention to detail is incredible.
Together with a stunning landscape, vibrant characters and an evocative story, Robinson has created a highly intelligent and well-crafted standalone novel. My only disappointment came when I turned the final page and was faced with the realisation that the story had concluded and my dream house a distant memory - until I pick up the book and read it all again. Gripping stuff and highly recommended
on 10 October 2011
I bought the Kindle edition of this based on my reading over the years of most of Robinson's Alan Banks stories. The basic plot of the novel is not particularly original; someone buys an empty old house, finds out that evil deeds were done there in the past, believes the wrong person was found guilty, carries out own investigation and hey-ho you have a mystery novel with plenty of ending options. For the benchmark example of how to make this type of plot work best I would suggest Colin Dexter's "The Wench is dead" is a good as any and better than most.
For me the novel plods a bit initially and didn't seem to come alive until we start to read extracts from Grace's [somewhat far-fetched] diary, written during the Second World War and detailing her experiences, both in the far east and in Normandy in the time immediately post D-Day.
But my major gripe is that the twists and turns in the plot became more and more predictable as I neared the end of the book. I was waiting for that final plot twist at the end and it just wasn't there. Sorry, Mr Robinson, I'm a genuine fan of yours, but this one seems more like a tummy-filler than a memorable meal!
on 5 September 2011
Last year I reviewed 'Bad Boy' and gave it one star. I thought it a tired and predictable read. Now Peter Robinson has given DCI Banks a rest and has written his best book for years.
'Before the Poison' has an evocative atmosphere. The characters and locations are brought convincingly to life as the story unfolds.
I was reminded a little of Robert Goddard's past work and a passing (slight) simalarity to his novel 'Set in Stone'. Robinson's book is more a novel than a mystery thriller and even though there are some twists, there is not the threat of danger lurking in the wings ala Goddard. This does not in any way diminish the novel though, as it is an engrossing and superbly written story.
I do hope that the success of this book spurs Peter Robinson on to write more 'stand alone' novels in the future.
on 28 August 2012
Having, many years ago, read and thoroughly enjoyed 'Caedmon's Song' (I was staying at an isolated Dorset coastal cottage at the time), I expected much from this 'stand alone' Peter Robinson offering. I tend to avoid 'series' novels in which the same hero (in Robinson's case, Inspector Banks) pops up over and over again. 'Before the Poison' started well enough, but, once we got to the point where every piece of the jigsaw was preceded by a long extract from the hanged heroine's journal, I began to become exasperated with the book. It is in any case overlong at getting on for 450 pages in the paperback edition. The heroine, incidentally, is one Grace Fox, a woman hanged some 60 years earlier for the murder of her husband. Since she has been hanged, she is an 'absent' heroine -rather as Rebecca is absent in the eponymous novel by Daphne du Maurier. The grammar is impeccable, even didactic, and the repeated allusions to music, both classical and jazz, quite got on my nerves after a time. So what has changed since I read 'Caedmon's Song'? It is true that I have, in the interim, read many distinguished novels. However, remembering the way the earlier work caught my imagination, I think 'Before the Poison' must be an inferior essay. The hero, a film-score composer named Christopher Lowndes is a most unlikely character, but his neuroses are not without foundation, as we discover near the end of the book. I suppose, if you skip the 'journal' bits, it consitutes a good, light read; but wouldn't that be a bit like listening to a version of one of the Schubert Impromptus Mr Lowndes keeps on about, with the central section excised? Then, come to think of it, Peter Robinson is no Schubert - and no Daphne du Maurier either!
on 30 August 2011
Not an Inspector Banks novel but very very good. I have read all this authors work and enjoyed every one, this one is no exception, the story unfolds from page one set in 1953 with the execution of a female.
From that moment you are hooked as the plot unfolds.
Totally absorbing; if you like thriller novels you will like this one.
Thank you Peter.
on 9 September 2011
I'm a Peter Robinson fan and I'll go on being a Peter Robinson fan -- but I found this book disappointing. So disappointing that it crossed my mind that, if he had not been by Peter Robinson, it might not have been published, because it really isn't good enough. This is plotting by numbers. The foreshadowing is so clumsy that, as I came across each little waymarker planted in the story, I thought, "Ah. So now I know what's going to happen in a few pages." And I was always right. Worst of all, though, was something that is usually a Peter Robinson strength -- the dialogue. It's all the same. 60 year old male composer whose lived in California for 20+ years, 45 year old female estate agent from Yorkshire, 20-something girl brought up in Australia, 80 year old ex-soldier now living in South Africa, artist of similar age in Paris -- every one of them speaks in exactly the same way. None of this will stop me from buying the next Peter Robinson as soon as it comes out, as I have bought pretty well all of his; but if the next one is not a sharp return to form, I may not buy the one after that. I feel let down.
on 24 August 2011
I love the DCI Banks novels, so wasn't sure about reading this by Peter Robinson. But I loved it. The style seems so different to his usual books, that it seemed as if it was written by a completely different author. I agree with the first reviewer that the first half of the book meanders along a bit, but the second half makes up for that. It is a very satisfying read and something a little different from the usual crime thriller books. I would thoroughly recommend it.
on 21 August 2011
If it's late August, then it's time for a new novel from Peter Robinson. Whilst I find this 'writing to timetable' slightly disturbing, I am not complaining. This year's offering is called 'Before the poison', and unusually is not about Robinson's serial character, DCI Alan Banks. Instead, it's about a composer (Chris something) who writes film soundtracks who has moved back from California to his native Yorkshire. But leaving the characterisation aside, this book might be considered a Banks story without Banks. I'll try to write about the book without giving away any spoilers.
The narrator finds himself owner of a large house, well off the beaten track. Slowly he discovers that the house has been virtually unoccupied for the last fifty years, and that the previous lady (Grace Fox) of the house was hung after being convicted of poisoning her husband, even though the husband was originally thought to have died as the result of a heart attack. The composer becomes intrigued by this story and starts chasing facts; he meets one source in a local pub, but for other sources, he has to travel to Paris and Cape Town.
Chris's search for the truth (or at least, his search for an understanding) is woven alongside his new life in the Yorkshire village, where he is befriended by his estate agent, a 40+ old lady with marital problems. Whilst this material has clearly been added to flesh out his characterisation, I'm not sure that it contributes that much to the story (compare this with similar pieces of DCI Banks' life when he's not chasing murderers).
In common with a few of the recent Banks novels, some of the action takes place in the present and some in the past. The past is represented first by the story of Grace Fox's trial taken from a book about famous murder trials (the book is bought by the composer in a second hand bookshop after he becomes curious) and secondly by extracts from Fox's private journal (the provenance of which only becomes clear towards the end of the story). Thus the trial material views what happens only from a distance, and of course only presents what happened at the trial - Grace Fox was not called to the witness stand to defend herself.
Again, in common with a few of the recent Banks novels, the first half is not particularly focused: Robinson lays down the groundwork diligently but it doesn't seem to go anywhere. The book takes off only when the extracts from Fox's private journal begin to appear; these of course tell the tale from a different angle, although all of the entries presented deal with Fox's life during the Second World War. These entries cause Chris to better his understanding of what almost certainly happened regarding the death.
I can understand why this book had to be written without Banks: there is no connection between what happened then as to what is happening now (in the previous novels, there was always a strong connection between past and present) and so there is no room for invoking a police investigation - hence no Banks. The composer is free to come and go as he wishes, asking people for their memories but with no compulsion to answer. I suspect, though, that most people in real life would be less enthusiastic about finding a resolution - indeed, several characters ask the composer why he is so driven about the story.
I had pre-ordered this book assuming it would be the latest in the author's Inspector Banks series. This is the first of his one-off novels I've read and I was impressed. The writing is more fluid and lyrical than in the detective books. It's an intriguing story with many layers and the author had done quite a bit of research to fill out historical details that give the narrative an authentic feel. It was as if this was the true story of Grace Fox hanged for the murder of her doctor husband in 1953 and the subsequent amateur detective work of Chris Lowndes who bought the ill-fated couple's house in Yorkshire nearly 60 years later. Chris Lowndes is a composer of film music which enables the author to refer excessively to the music the character is listening to: an irritating characteristic of all Peter Robinson's books, but I forgive him this time as the story is so engrossing.