|THE POISON ARTIST
Jonathan Moore (www.jonathanmoorefiction.com)
Orion Books (www.orionbooks.co.uk)
Toxicologist Caleb Maddox is a specialist in pain, his current research project an examination of the chemical changes severe pain can cause to the human body. In the same week that his girlfriend storms out of their home and relationship, his good friend, the San Francisco Medical Examiner, calls on him for help in an unofficial capacity: a number of bodies have been pulled from the bay with no seeming connection to each other apart from the method of their demise, and the state-funded toxicology labs have been unable to find anything useful. When a pair of detectives question him about one of these bodies, a man who was last seen alive in a bar at the same time Caleb was there, his relationship to the case becomes complicated. Not only does Caleb have a direct connection with the case through his work with the ME, but he has been lying to the police, hiding the existence of Emmeline, a beautiful, sophisticated woman who he meets in the bar in question on the night the police are interested in, and who introduces him to absinthe, a substance that seems to be slowly eroding the edges of Caleb’s sanity.
From the outset, Jonathan Moore’s debut novel has a certain something that seems to set it apart from the run-of-the-mill crime thriller. It is beautifully written, Moore’s writing bringing with it an intensity that sucks the reader in completely and makes us believe that this world – however strange it may seem – is completely real. This is especially noticeable in those fleeting moments that Caleb spends with Emmeline, a woman who we instinctively distrust from the first time we see her. Narrated in the third person, this is, however, the story of Caleb himself, and the reader is invited to view this world, and the unfolding mystery, from his point of view.
Caleb himself is a character that it is easy to follow. His life seems to be falling apart around him and he finds himself on a dangerous path because of this disintegration – the increased drinking, his involvement with the police, with Emmeline, with his old friend Henry. He has a dark past that seems on the verge of coming back to haunt him, though it’s difficult to tell whether it’s a past where he was victim or perpetrator until Moore drip-feeds morsels of information as we need them, and as it serves the purpose of the story. Caleb’s work for the ME immediately brings results, showing the presence of toxins in the victims’ blood that suggest they are viciously tortured in the hours leading to their deaths. The irregularities at his lab – the strange appearance of unexpected tissue samples for his research project, for example – at first seem unimportant, unrelated to the story at hand, but take on greater importance as things start to come to a head.
The language Moore uses is terse and strained, driven by Caleb’s gradual disintegration and increasingly distant relationship with reality. It’s reminiscent of the excellent Phineas Poe novels of Will Christopher Baer, if slightly less off-the-wall in terms of plot progression. At the novel’s core is a cleverly-constructed mystery and a view of crime from a slightly different point of view – the toxicologist is normally a faceless back-room boy whose input is the offhand instruction to “run a tox screen” and whose output will either absolve the current suspect, or point the finger at a previously-unconsidered one. Moore’s examination of the science and technology behind this process is interesting without being boring or over-explained, and works well within the context of the story.
I do, unfortunately, have one complaint about The Poison Artist, and it’s this: anyone who has more than a passing acquaintance with the genre will see the ending coming from around the halfway point of the book. In some ways, the story’s construction is almost too clever, Moore’s tricks (such as the third-person narrative) too obvious to hide what he’s trying to achieve. To reach the end of such a well-written piece of fiction and discover that your first guess as to the identity of the culprit was spot on is more than a little disappointing – almost like watching an episode of Castle – and takes away from what is otherwise a fantastic novel.
That said, if you’re happy enough to play sleuth and be proven correct at the end of the book, then The Poison Artist is more than worth your while. Moore’s voice and writing style are worth the price of admission alone, his characterisation and sense of place second to none. The Poison Artist is the first part of a trilogy and I’m happy to say that the disappointing ending isn’t enough to stop me looking forward to the second instalment. It’s unlikely to find itself on too many “Best of Year” lists, but it’s a solid effort from an undoubtedly talented writer who hopefully won’t take too long to find his feet.