Postscript to Poison, & Shadows Before by Dorothy Bowers

Review by Harriet, 4 February 2020

I have a special liking for vintage crime novels and am always pleased when I discover an author previously unknown to me. This has happened a lot in recent years, of course, largely owing to the great British Library Crime Classics series. But other publishers are now making discoveries of their own, and one such is the small and relatively new publishing company Moonstone Press. So far their output comprises just two authors, Christopher St John Sprigg and Dorothy Bowers. One of Sprigg’s novels appeared in the BL series, but I had certainly never heard of Bowers so was delighted to be offered review copies of her first two novels.

Born in 1901, Bowers tried teaching before deciding she would focus on her writing. She produced five novels between 1938 and 1947, and was elected to the prestigious Detection Club in 1948. Unfortunately she died from tuberculosis in the same year. Her intelligent, well written and intricately plotted novels apparently caused her to be seen as a potential successor to Dorothy Sayers. I can’t comment on that, but I certainly found these two novels immersive and enjoyable.

Postscript to Poison (1938) plunges straight into the intriguing plot. In a small manor house in the English countryside, the local doctor has just been visiting an elderly patient, the ‘haughty and malicious’ Cornelia Lackland. A rich widow, Cornelia is recovering from a long illness, and her two step-granddaughters, Carol and Jenny, are interested to know how she is. Cornelia has arranged a visit from her solicitor, as she is planning to make (yet another) change to her will. This is likely to affect not only the two girls, who at present stand to inherit considerable sums, but also her attendant Emily Bullen. Everyone is on tenterhooks, but before the changes can be made Cornelia is dead, having been poisoned.

Nobody is particularly sorry that Cornelia will not be around any more. She has ruled the household with a rod of iron, bullies her companion and restricts the movements of the girls. This makes life particularly difficult for Jenny, who has recently got engaged to an attractive Polish film star. To complicate matters further, nasty anonymous letters have been circulating; indeed, that same day the doctor has received a new one: Do you think it is a secret that you are secretly poisoning Mrs Lackland?

Enter Chief Inspector Dan Pardoe from Scotland Yard, who arrives by train accompanied by his sidekick Detective Sergeant Salt, ‘a sound officer of disarmingly homely appearance’. Needless to say everyone appears to have a motive of some kind, and alibis are not always trustworthy. After several red herrings Pardoe arrives at the correct solution, which certainly took me by surprise. Maybe it shouldn’t have, as Bowers was an adherent of the ‘fair play’ school of detective fiction, which held that the reader must be supplied with all the clues necessary to solve the murder. So what Pardoe knows, the reader knows too. It’s what you do with it that counts, though, and Pardoe certainly had one up on me.

I followed this immediately with Bowers’ second novel, Shadows Before (1939). Another poisoning, another country house mystery, but there’s nothing hackneyed about this one. This time we are in Spanwater, a remote manor in the Cotswolds. Here live Matthew Weir, his wife Catherine, a young nephew and niece, Dinah and Nick Terris, and occasionally Matthew’s poet brother Augustus. There’s also a housekeeper, the deeply unpleasant Mrs Kingdom, and a sinister manservant called Mold. The family has not been living there for very long – Matthew moved them from their previous home after he was tried and acquitted for the murder of his sister-in-law a couple of years earlier. Catherine Weir is a gentle, kindly woman but now suffering from increasing vagueness and loss of memory. For this reason her husband and the local Dr Smollett have decided she needs a full-time companion, and the novel begins with an attractive young woman, Aurelia Brett, being interviewed and subsequently offered the job. In the interview she asked whether nursing experience was necessary and was told it was not. This is especially puzzling, as Catherine has been suffering over the past weeks with a mystery illness, which the doctor has been unable to diagnose.

Catherine Weir is essentially a simple countrywoman, and in her sad decline she has reverted to a habit she learned from her mother: she gathers wild flowers and makes them into herbal infusions. She believes them to be health-giving, but nobody else is willing to try them. Alarm bells may ring in the reader’s mind here, and sure enough, after apparently being in better health for a while, Catherine suffers a severe attack and dies. The jug of herbal tea by her bed is analysed and found to contain a large amount of arsenic.

Chief Inspector Pardoe and DI Salt are faced here with some very complex issues. Inheritance is crucial in determining a motive. Catherine had money of her own, which Matthew would find very useful should it come to him – he’s not rich, and paying for Dinah and Nick’s university educations will be a strain on him. But how much will come his way depends on whether a young relative is still alive – she disappeared several years ago, having run off and joined a touring dance group. Then there are various mysterious neighbours, one of whom, a gypsy woman, appears to have taken a dislike to Catherine. And what’s happened to Miss Gretton, who rented a nearby cottage and befriended Catherine, but has recently disappeared without trace?

Once again, faced with such an avalanche of suspects, all Pardoe’s ingenuity is required to solve the puzzle, which of course he does with aplomb, though not before two other people have met their deaths. And once again, the denouement took me completely by surprise.

As far as I can tell, Bowers’ novels have only been republished once before, and that was by an American publisher in the early 2000s. So this revival is extremely welcome. There’s everything to enjoy in her highly readable fiction: she writes well, creates strong characters, and invents fiendishly complex but wholly satisfying solutions to her well-constructed plots. Her other three novels are also newly published by Moonstone Press. Top marks to them for such an enjoyable discovery.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Dorothy Bowers, Postscript to Poison (Moonstone Press, 2019). 978-1899000081, 252pp., paperback original.

Dorothy Bowers, Shadows Before (Moonstone Press, 2019). 978-1899000104, 286pp., paperback original.

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