Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Dram of Poison

A DRAM OF POISON – Charlotte Armstrong (1956)

This is the first of Armstrong’s books and it won an Edgar Award in 1957.  It’s a quirky book in some ways.  In fact, it’s almost two separate novellas.  The opening chapter introduces Kenneth Gibson, a mild-mannered bachelor of fifty-five and professor of English at a small college in California.  We first meet Kenneth in the company of his neighbor Paul, a chemist whose lab contains an array of deadly poisons.  Kenneth casually observes where Paul keeps the key to the poisons cabinet.   We can guess what’s going to happen, can’t we? 

The first half of the book is a superbly crafted novel of suspense.  At a colleague’s funeral Kenneth meets the deceased's 32-year-old daughter Rosemary, a repressed survivor of her father’s tyrannical domination.  Kenneth is a good man, and he determines that he will rescue Rosemary.  He feels so strongly about his duty to do so that he soon marries her.  To their mutual amazement, love grows.  Predictably disaster soon strikes in the form of a car accident and the arrival of Kenneth’s competent sister, Ethel, who overwhelms both Kenneth and Rosemary with her decisive character and implacable will.  Relations among the three become poisonous, and the atmosphere is tense.

In these circumstances, it’s no surprise when disaster strikes again.  I can’t reveal what happens without diluting the pleasure of anyone who might read this book, but let me just say that from this point forward the book is entirely different.  A half-dozen new characters are introduced and the psychology of the subconscious is discussed in a witty and learned fashion (primarily by a bus driver named Lee).  The virtues of love, gratitude, and friendship are dissected with introspection and insight.  Where the first half of the book is characterized by a gathering sense of doom, the second half is a race to redeem lost souls.  I’ve read reviews that suggest this juxtaposition is jarring, but I found the two halves perfectly compatible.  In my opinion, it’s quite a tour de force from Armstrong.  She is high on my list now.


  1. Going to check it out from the library! -- you sold me!

  2. I hope you like it. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of her novels. I hope they don't disappoint!

  3. I really enjoyed this book. Read it when I was a lad many years ago. Isn't this the one with the olive jar and its dangerous contents? Always thought it would make a great movie. If you're looking for the best of Armstrong I suggest any of my favorites: MISCHIEF (made into the Marilyn Monroe vehicle Don't Bother to Kncok), THE DREAM WALKER, THE UNSUSPECTED (also made into a movie), THE WITCH'S HOUSE and THE BALLOON MAN.

    One minor correction from your local Vintage Mystery Maven. This is not Armstrong's first book, it's her twelfth. Her first is called Lay On, Mac Duff!, a borderline HIBK mystery when she was writing routine detective novels with series detective MacDougal Duff. It was published in 1942 and Duff appeared in two other books before Armstrong abandoned the formula of detective novels in favor of crime novels that focussed on suspense and character rather than puzzling murders.

  4. What a memory you have! Indeed it is the olive jar story. And corrections appreciated, John. I was looking at some biographical sources on Armstrong (you know, just in case YOU were wrong), but curse it, you're right. How could I doubt you? I shall not make the same mistake in the future. I appear to have unilaterally decided this was Armstrong's first book. That seems to happen with increasing frequency these days - I'm living in a parallel universe of my own creation. I'll check out the other recommendations.

  5. This book is on my docket for this year (not for the Vintage Challenge, oddly enough)--so I didn't read too closely. But glad you liked it. I highly recommend Lay On, Mac Duff! I read that one last year. I wasn't quite so enamored with The Chocolate Cobweb (the only other Armstrong I've read)--but your mileage may very.

  6. Good recommendations from you and John, which means I'll be reading all the Armstrong I can find. I'll read the suggested titles first and post about them at a future date.