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Thriller Thursday – A Dram of Poison

A Dram of Poison by Charlotte Armstrong

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


In this 1956 suspense mystery, a crime may occur. The protagonist and his merry band must prevent the crime. Otherwise, the protagonist may lose his wife and his freedom. The ending delivers the satisfying emotional release that we look for in a suspense novel. But on the way to the climax this story also provides the intellectual pleasure that we want from a mystery.

Like Shirley Jackson, Armstrong was a keen and cool observer. Of a wedding procedure between a middle-aged poetry prof and a girl young enough to be his daughter: “It was an ugly, dreary wedding. It made Mr. Gibson wince in his soul, but it was quick, soon over. He was able to take it as just necessary, like a disagreeable pill.”

Armstrong had a dab hand at constructing a plot that dragged her characters through the mill until the very last moment. In this novel, she examines the physical and psychological effects of a bad car accident. Now lame and feeling old and unsure, the protagonist goes into a depression that his unhelpful sister worsens with her cheap cynicism and amateur Freudian psychoanalytical mumbo-jumbo.

When the post-World War II anxiety is reaching a pitch, however, Armstrong twists the plot and changes the tone from somber to comical and philosophical. With lesser writers we would wonder about the wisdom of sudden changes in plot and tone and the introduction of a five new characters half-way through.  But Armstrong pulls off these audacious moves. She was truly a surprising, enchanting writer.

Christopher Pym in the Spectator wrote: “Nobody gets hurt in this pleasantly sentimental, good-natured version of the `psychological study’ sort of crime story, but there is plenty of suspense, and a good chase after the poison bottle. Full marks for the fresh approach.”

This novel won the 1957 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. I read another of her suspense novels, a ‘howdunnit’ called The Unsuspected (my review is here), which I also highly recommend though it is as unclassifiable as this one.







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