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FIERCE POISON by Will Thomas: Book Review

When a man enters the Barker and Llewelyn Agency early one morning, it’s the beginning of the most bizarre case that the private inquiry agents have handled.  Also the most dangerous.

The man stumbles as he entered the office, asking for some water in a rough voice and then trying unsuccessfully to continue speaking.  “Help me…please” is all he is able to say before he falls to the floor and dies.

The man’s calling card, which he had handed to the butler, gives his name and position as Roland Fitzhugh, Liberal Member of Parliament.  Despite his being unknown to either Cyrus Barker or Thomas Llewelyn, Barker insists they are obligated to investigate the death because he asked for their assistance in his last moments.

When Inspector Poole of Scotland Yard arrives at the Agency, he tells Barker and Llewelyn that Fitzhugh had come to the Yard earlier that morning, saying he believed he had been poisoned, and Poole told him he would look into it.  Now both the police and the private investigators are searching for the culprit.

An autopsy reveals that Fitzhugh had been poisoned by a raspberry tart he apparently had eaten just before entering Poole’s office.  Llewelyn then remembers that a young boy had been offering free samples of tarts that morning in front of their building, and the police begin a search for him.

Then, in the middle of the night, Thomas and Cyrus are awakened by a constable from the Yard and ordered to an East End address.  When they arrive Poole is there, overseeing a tragic scene.  An entire family, except for an infant, has been poisoned.  Mother, father, and two sons are dead, and one of the boys is the young peddler who had been giving out the tarts in front of the Agency.

As the private investigators delve more deeply into Fitzhugh’s past, they discover some disquieting things.  He was a widower, so why did he keep a photo of his late wife hidden in another object on his mantle?  He was engaged, but did he steal the affections of his fiancée away from his partner, Edward Lindsay?  And why did he seemingly have no friends or close colleagues in Parliament?

This novel, the thirteenth mystery in the Barker and Llewelyn series, takes readers back to Victorian England with its strict moral codes and their consequences.  Women of all classes were dominated by their fathers until they married and by their husbands afterwards.  In the eyes of the law (prior to 1882), once a woman married she basically ceased to exist.  On her wedding day she became one person with her husband, and thereafter everything she did was under his control.  Wives had no protection under the law; they lost ownership of their wages, their physical property (excluding land property), and their money.  We can see the devastating results of these practices in Fierce Poison.

Will Thomas has written another outstanding historical mystery.   You can read more about him at various sites on the web.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

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