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.