Robinson, Peter. Before the Poison.

NY: Morrow, 2012.

Robinson is best known for his lengthy (and excellent) Yorkshire mystery series featuring Detective Inspector Banks. This one, while also set in Yorkshire, is a standalone novel of generally high quality. Chris Lowndes is a talented composer of motion picture scores (“the music no one listens to”) who has lived and worked in California for twenty-five years. But now, nearly a year after the death by cancer of his wife, Laura, Chris has returned to the Dales to try to sort himself out and regain his equilibrium.

With money in his pocket now, he buys a big, old, secluded house a few miles from Richmond with the intention of more or less hiding from the world while he works on the piano concerto which he hopes will become his legacy. In short order, he discovers the previous family in the house included Grace Fox, who was convicted of murdering her cold-fish doctor husband in 1953 and was hanged. He becomes fascinated by the case, reads everything he can find, starts talking to the locals, and remembers that he himself was a young student at the school next door to the prison at the time of the execution. His interest becomes rather an obsession and he travels to Paris and then to Cape Town in pursuit of information and evidence of Grace’s innocence — because the more he turns up, the more he is convinced that she couldn’t have done it.

The narrative is two-tiered in structure, which can be an iffy strategy, but it works very well. Each chapter opens with a section from an earlier time — the “Great British Trials” account of the proceedings, and then Grace’s earlier journal of her horrific experiences in southeast Asia and France as a Queen Alexandra Nurse (the best of the best) during World War II. Then we jump back to the present where Chris is uncovering some of the same information but has a very different take on it. And it becomes clear that Grace was tried and convicted not so much for murder — the forensic evidence was pretty shaky, really — but for being different according to the narrow-minded morality of the day, for being an older woman having an affair with a much younger man (and a farm-boy-turned-artist at that), and for not knuckling under sufficiently to her husband. The story comes to life on several levels as you work your way into it. This is not a book to be skimmed. It’s not at all like his Inspector Banks novels and some readers, I know, will reject it because it’s not what they expected nor what they’re used to. But settle in with it in a quiet place and let Robinson work his magic on you.

My only real problem with the narrative, actually, is that three-quarters of the way in, the focus jumps abruptly and the plotline (about which, obviously, I can’t give details) heads off in a rather new direction. Frankly, it feels as though there should be a couple extra chapters in there to ease the transition and to explain what’s happening in considerably more detail. Robinson is a much better writer than that. I have to wonder if the bean-counters at William Morrow didn’t decide the production costs were too high and give orders to simply whack a hundred pages from the manuscript. But even with that complaint, I recommend this one very strongly.

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