A Dram of Poison (1956) by Charlotte Armstrong

This book was recommended to me a few weeks ago by Xavier Lechard, a keen contributor to the Facebook GAD group and also the writer of the blog At the Villa Rose and for once I actually remembered the recommendation long enough to buy myself a copy. This book received the accolade of Xavier’s best 2000 read (alongside my next read on the blog). Oh and it also won the Edgar Award for the Best Novel in 1957 as well. Both equally coveted positions of course!

No idea what the cover artist was basing their final design on – certainly wasn’t the plot!

The story starts with Kenneth Gibson accidently meeting Paul Townsend, a chemical engineer with his own plant and laboratory. The conversation soon shifts to an innocent discussion of what poisons Paul has in his lab, including one with no taste or smell and kills rapidly. The plot then shifts to Kenneth going to the funeral of an old colleague and meeting his daughter, Rosemary. The years taking care of her very unwell father have left Rosemary a wreck and her finances are in a deplorable state. Based on the potted history we receive of Kenneth we can see how he is going to respond to Rosemary’s crisis and possibly even some of the reasons why – human motivations is a key facet of this book. Suffice to say, despite their age difference, they marry – though not for overtly romantic reasons. Kenneth is keen to stress their suitability as companions and how it will solve Rosemary’s financial crisis. Paul pops up again at this point in the book, renting out a cottage next door to his home for the newly married couple to move into. Oh and did I mention that Paul is a rich, handsome, young widower?

Based on this much of the plot you might think you have a fair idea of what is going to happen to next. I was one such confident reader. All I have to say is that I was decidedly and categorically wrong!

Overall Thoughts

So yes this is definitely a plot which immediately gets your mind going, trying to predict what is going to happen and when it might occur. Of course there does come a point where these predictions are revealed to be hopelessly incorrect and from there on in, via many unexpected turns on the way, things tend to get turned on their head. I have to say that the final consequences of the plot setup are not what I had expected, though this did not detract from my enjoyment of them. The second half of the book does bear some similarities to the style of Alice Tilton’s work, though this is not a comedy in the same vein, as it is very much more of a tragicomedy for most of the book, with the occasional pockets of dark humour.

The 1950s are often cited as a decade where psychological crime novels came into their own, (though of course there are earlier examples) and Armstrong’s book can be seen as part of this subgenre. Yet, despite the narrative’s interest in character psychology and human motivation, I think it is also a book which seeks to comically undermine the psychological crime novel – a move which becomes very much apparent in the final third of the book.

On the whole I thought this a very good read, with the characterisation unsurprisingly being a major strength of it, and it is a definite must for those who like unexpected crime novels, as this is one is fairly unconventional crime, with the real mystery becoming what is actually going to happen and how are things going to pan out.

Rating: 4.25/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Means of Murder in Title

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10 comments

  1. I’m glad that you liked it Kate – it is a very sui generis novel and not one to everyone’s taste. I don’t know how familiar you are with Armstrong’s work but this book to me is both the epitome and culmination of her approach to crime fiction, that is, building suspense out of not just acts, be they criminal or not, but of their consequences. Everything that happens in a Charlotte Armstrong is bound to have an aftermath, and said aftermath is sometimes even worse than the act that caused it. That’s what I’d call “snowball plotting” and she was a master at that.

    I hope you like my next recommendation as much as you did this one, though both books have nothing in common but being experiments in how to write a different, very different kind of crime story – and you know I’m always on the prowl for those. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Then if you allow me one more suggestion (I promise it will be the last one – you already have so many books to read!) I think you should follow up with “Incident at a Corner” which while much shorter (it’s a novella rather than a full-length novel) shares many characteristics with this book and was the one that hooked me on Armstrong. It was memorably filmed under the same title by Alfred Hitchcock no less, with Armstrong herself writing the screenplay – their only collaboration oddly enough.

    Liked by 1 person

    • haha I’m always up for another book recommendation. My TBR pile is under 20 books at the moment after all. Thanks for this next tip and even better there are reasonably priced copies of this book, albeit in large print editions.

      Like

  3. Just like to add a thank you here as I ‘ve just read this one and really enjoyed it. And even knowing going in that the plot was going to be unorthodox didn’t detract from the enjoyment as, well, it really doesn’t go *anywhere* I expected.

    Liked by 1 person

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