Written by Jonathan Moore — Poison was once a popular feature in crime fiction of the Golden Age, particularly in the works of Agatha Christie. Jonathan Moore has revived that tradition with ingenuity in his debut novel. The Poison Artist arrives with a blurb from Stephen King, who ranks it alongside Red Dragon by Thomas Harris for sheer terror.
While San Francisco may be associated with Californian sunshine and the 21st century tech industry, The Poison Artist is a noirish, atmospheric tale in which most of the action happens at night – like a strange dream. Toxicologist Dr Caleb Maddox has just broken up with his girlfriend, and he sports a livid bruise from the glass thrown at him as she left. He’s turning into a barfly, driving around the fog-cloaked city and contemplating his loneliness. One night he enters a drinking den resembling an old-fashioned speakeasy and has a brief encounter with a mysterious woman, who introduces him to the rituals of drinking absinthe.
Once he’s got over his hangover, Caleb tries to track down his beguiling fellow drinker, who resembled an actress from the silent film era. But he’s soon distracted by a serial killer case in the city. Several bodies have been pulled out of the bay and his friend Henry, who works at the medical examiner’s office, needs help. Caleb is an expert in poisons and measuring pain, so he spots the double whammy of drugs that incapacitated these victims but meant they endured every moment of their torture.
There’s a dash of dark humour in Moore’s novel, as Caleb and Henry discuss the horror of this case while happily ordering dinner. There’s also an unforgettable detail from a post-mortem examination, which involves a surprising method for restoring a fingerprint to a corpse whose digits have puckered in the water (the pathologist’s unpleasant technique makes the skin fit like a glove).
While the suspense is slow-burning for the first half of the novel, Moore creates a uniquely sinister atmosphere in his San Francisco night-time netherworld. It’s an account of slow, lingering seduction by a femme fatale alongside a serial killer story that’s as scary as Stephen King suggests. There’s proper science to explain the poison as well as the sewage samples that identify where the bodies may have entered the water, but Moore is just as adept at immersing us in art and madness, a combination that recalls Elizabeth Hand’s disturbing novel Generation Loss.
Caleb is a fascinating character – damaged, drunk but also resourceful, smart and given to the sort of statements you expect from modern noir: “…there was going to be a lot of lying, if he was lucky” is one good example. There’s also a murky family tragedy that Caleb doesn’t like to discuss, while his own disappearance during childhood is only alluded to yet might have some kind of connection to the men who are now going missing across the city.
As the novel progresses and the latest victim turns out to be someone closer to home, Caleb becomes more involved in the case, which he tries to solve through the fog of his own alcohol intake and a state of mind troubled by the kind of obsession that made classics of Vertigo (both the film and the original novel). Meanwhile, his research work is falling apart and his friends and colleagues are increasingly concerned. He’s intent on finding the killer, but he’s definitely not your typical hero.
Like Agatha Christie, Jonathan Moore is a writer who gets you hooked on a plot where poison is the cold, clinical method of execution. The Poison Artist is a debut that’s both an exemplary psychological crime novel and a masterful exercise in intoxicating dread. It’s a strange, sensual story to be savoured like the finest single malt whisky.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars