Friday, November 14, 2014

pure vintage: Postscript to Poison, by Dorothy Bowers

Rue Morgue Press, 2005
originally published 1938
190 pp


Originally published in 1938,  Postscript to Poison is the first of only five books by British author Dorothy Bowers, who died only ten years later after a battle with tuberculosis.  Bowers had wanted to "make creative literary work" her career, but found herself the owner of  “a fairly regular spate of rejection slips from various editors”  instead.  She also read a great deal, and discovered an "intermittent" attraction to detective fiction, selecting "only ...the best." She eventually started writing mystery novels herself which ultimately led to her being inducted to the detection club in 1948, but her novels soon went out of print.   Thanks to Rue Morgue Press, her works live on and are widely available.  Sadly, she's been overlooked or forgotten at mainstream crime fiction/mystery  info sites like, an oversight which, imho, needs to be corrected. I've already ordered her second book in this series, Shadows Before, which I'm definitely looking forward to reading after having finished Postscript to Poison, so obviously it means that I enjoyed this one enough to merit another.

When the epigraph in the first chapter of a novel has to do with Lady Macbeth, it's definitely notice worthy. Good old Lady Macbeth -- that ambitious,  ruthless and very powerful woman -- could almost be an alter ego to the matriarch in this family drama. I say almost -- unlike Lady Macbeth, Cornelia Lackland is an elderly widow and she dies by the end of chapter two. It's only after her death that the full scale of her tyranny is revealed, which brings to light just how much everyone at Lacklands hates her, and with what I'd say is good reason. She probably would have made a good murderer had she not been a victim.

Before Mrs. Lackland dies, however, there is some monkey business at work in the town of Minsterbridge. Her physician, Dr. Faithful, has received a couple of nasty poison pen letters accusing him of poisoning his patient, and decides to turn them over to the police. While Mrs. Lackland had been ill, she'd recently been making a very good recovery, and was healthy enough to have been excited about the coming visit with her solicitor Mr. Rennie. But even though the good doctor has given her a good prognosis, he is called out to Lacklands one night only to find her dead.  He refuses to give a certificate of death, and calls for the coroner, ultimately leading to the involvement of Chief Inspector Dan Pardoe of Scotland Yard, who quickly discovers how very much the old lady was hated by just about everyone in the household and that she had a rather shady past.  He has to sort through not only this mess, but also has to find whoever may be responsible when a second death occurs.

the detection club  from
Postscript to Poison has its moments, but the author keeps the best one,  the revelation of the murderer, a secret up until the very end. There are so many people who qualify as suspects, all with motives, means and opportunity,  keeping the reader involved until all is said and done. With such a large cast of possibles, the red herrings can't help but multiply, so things are never dull.

Even though it's the 1930s, some Victorian attitudes still prevail in this novel, for example, with the use of the term "hysteria."  Our intrepid detective from New Scotland Yard has a "natural man's horror of hysteria," and is surprised when Mrs. Lackland's companion, Emily Bullen, doesn't live up to his expectations.   The same character is also described by the inspector as "a crafty, hysterical, harmful, but ultimately stupid type."  There are more uses of this word scattered through the book, but you get the idea.

At the same time, I can't help but wonder how much of herself the author may have put into Bullen's description when she says
"She has all the traits of the disappointed spinster that has to face a future of starved affections and economic insecurity." 
According to Bowers'  bio at Rue Morgue Press,
"Like her sister and many of her Oxford friends, she never married. If there was ever a man in her life it was an aspect of her existence that she chose not to share with her friends. "
Furthermore, in a article from The Independent about forgotten authors, Christopher Fowler notes that
"Bowers struggled for years to find a job as history tutor, supplementing her meagre income by compiling crossword puzzles." 
Then again, I could be totally wrong here, but these are a definitely a couple of interesting and possibly noteworthy parallels!

Postscript to Poison is definitely a yes for anyone interested in golden-age mysteries, in 1930s British crime,  and for anyone like myself who is or has become interested in rather obscure women writers of past decades.  It does have that sort of language that is pretty typical of golden-age mystery works which may seem sort of weighty for a modern reader, but the story does flow pretty well and the characters are all very well established.  It's also a fun whodunit loaded with clues that will satisfy any armchair detective for a few hours. Watch the epigraphs, too!


  1. This is impressive: positively wonderful, and it should be in print.

    1. It's really just for my own entertainment, actually!



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