“In the darkness, her face glimmered like polished bone, white, but with a bluish tinge. Her lips were dry and cracked. I saw them move; saw a white tongue pass over them as if she were trying to speak, but she made no sound.”
A plague is coming to London. Dreaded more than the Devil himself, cholera – the ‘blue death’ – spares no one. As fear grows across the city, Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermain are called to the bedside of a dead man, murdered, with his throat torn out, in the back room of a brothel. When an innocent man is taken to Newgate, Jem and Will have until execution day to save him. The search for the identity of the corpse, and the killer, takes them to the gates of Blackwater Hall, home to the secretive, and corrupt Mortmain family.
With the approach of autumn, no one is safe, for the fog brings with it an evil and poisonous sickness – the perfect shroud for murder. As family secrets are prised out into the open, people begin dying. But who, or what, is the cause?
Searching for answers, Jem and Will are driven underground, to the passages and tunnels beneath the city’s teeming streets. Here, their adversary proves to be more elusive, and more deadly, than ever.
“We emerged into a clearing. The smell of corruption was thicker there, the light that filtered through the dirty glass panes overhead dim and murky. On all sides there was a multitude of queer little plants, scores of short, fleshy tubes and thick-lipped trumpets, moist and glistening and threaded with scarlet veins”
Restless and bored after a long hot summer, apothecary and poison expert Jem Flockhart decides to redesign her physic garden. But plans are thrown into confusion when a man’s skeleton is unearthed from beneath the deadly nightshade, a smaller, child-like skeleton curled at its feet. The police claim the victim is too long-buried for answers to be found, but for Jem, a corpse in her own garden is something that cannot be ignored.
When Jem and Will start asking questions, the murders begin. Each victim has a past connection with the physic garden; each corpse is found with its jaw broken wide and its mouth stuffed with the berries of the deadly nightshade. As they move closer to uncovering the truth they encounter a dark world of addiction, madness and death that strikes at the very heart of Jem’s own identity. This time, the poison is personal.
“To know the hands of a murderer you need look no further than mine.”
Visiting the Great Exhibition to view the wax anatomical models of the famous but reclusive Dr Silas Strangeway, Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermain find a severed hand, perfectly dissected and laid out amongst the exhibits. Assuming it to be a prank by medical students they return it to Dr Strangeway, who works as Corvus Hall, a private anatomy school run by Dr Alexander Crowe – once one of Edinburgh’s most revered anatomists. Jem’s persistence reveals that a body does indeed lie in the school’s mortuary, minus its right hand. The body has no provenance. More macabre still, its face has been dissected, making identification impossible.
In a mystery that ranges from the courts and wynds of Burke and Hare’s Edinburgh to the dissecting tables of London’s most notorious anatomy school, Jem and Will find that the past stalks the present, and the dead will not give up their secrets easily.
“I knew the smell of death well enough. But here the sweetness of decay was tainted with something else, something new and different. It was a curious, moist smell, a smell that spoke of the ooze and slap of water, of gurgling wet spaces and the sticky yielding mud of low tide.”
Summoned to the riverside by the desperate, scribbled note of an old friend, Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermain find themselves on board the seamen’s floating hospital, an old hulk known only as The Blood, where prejudice, ambition, and murder seethe beneath a veneer of medical respectability.
On shore, a young woman, a known prostitute, is found drowned in a derelict boatyard. A man leaps to his death into the Thames, driven mad by poison and fear. The events are linked—but how
Courting danger in the opium dens and brothels of the waterfront, certain that The Blood lies at the heart of the puzzle, Jem and Will embark on a quest to uncover the truth. In a hunt that takes them from the dissecting tables of a private anatomy school to the squalor of the dock-side mortuary, they find themselves involved in a dark and terrible mystery.
“The lips had been darned closed with six long, black, stitches. Clumsily executed, they gave the face a crude deaths-head appearance, like a child’s drawing scrawled upon a wall…”
1851, Angel Meadow Asylum. Dr Rutherford, principal alienist, is found dead, his head bashed in, his ears cut off, his lips and eyes stitched closed. The police direct their attention towards Angel Meadow’s inmates, but to Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermain the crime is an act of calculated retribution, rather than of madness.
To discover the truth Jem and Will must pursue the story through the darkest corners of the city – from the depths of a notorious rookery, to the sordid rooms of London’s brothels, the graveyard, the convict fleet and back to the asylum.
In a world where guilt and innocence, crime and atonement, madness and reason, are bounded by hypocrisy, ambition and betrayal, Jem and Will soon find themselves caught up in a web of dark secrets and hidden identities.
“The object I drew out was dusty and mildewed, and blotched with dark rust-coloured stains. It smelt of time and decay, sour, like old books and parchments. The light from the chapel’s stained glass window blushed red upon it, and upon my hands, as if the thing itself radiated a bloody glow.”
Ramshackle and crumbling, trapped in the past and resisting the future, St Saviour’s Infirmary awaits demolition. Within its stinking wards and cramped corridors the doctors bicker and fight. Ambition, jealousy and hatred seethe beneath the veneer of professional courtesy. Always an outsider, and with a secret of her own to hide, apothecary Jem Flockhart observes everything, but says nothing.
Six tiny coffins, inside each a handful of dried flowers and a bundle of mouldering rags. When Jem comes across these strange relics hidden inside the infirmary’s old chapel, her quest to understand their meaning prises open a long-forgotten past – with fatal consequences.
In a trail that leads from the bloody world of the operating theatre and the dissecting table to the notorious squalor of Newgate, Jem’s adversary proves to be both powerful and ruthless. As St Saviour’s destruction draws near, the dead are unearthed from their graves whilst the living are forced to make impossible choices. Murder is the price to be paid for the secrets to be kept.”
BELOVED POISON was published by Constable on 4th March 2016. It was Constable’s lead debut crime fiction title for 2016.