An age-old murder mystery and the hunt for redemption
With so many novels having centred on the solving of a decades-old murder, how is it possible to come up with something unhackneyed in this much-trodden territory?
Peter Robinson's solution in Before the Poison is not exactly innovatory, and the cracking in the present of a long-forgotten mystery from the past has many antecedents - Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, for one. But for an old hand at the crime genre such as Robinson, there are still fresh angles to be found.
What we are given here is essentially a ghost story without the ghosts. Chris Lowndes has been making a lucrative living in Hollywood writing the music for big-budget films. Lowndes's own soul is more stirred by Schubert piano sonatas, and his dream is to retire to his native Yorkshire to get down to some serious composition with his much-loved wife Laura. But Lowndes's life is thrown into disarray when Laura dies (we are not immediately told the circumstances), and he finds himself back in England alone in his impressive old house desperately struggling with grief.
A ghost walks the oak-panelled corridors of Kilnsgate: a woman who has been dead for 60 years. Elizabeth Fox, however, is not a supernatural presence, but still takes over Lowndes's life when he learns that she was hanged for the murder of her spouse. A variety of matters contrive to make Lowndes believe she was innocent, and he begins a trawl through history (much in the fashion of Tey's novel), gradually becoming obsessed with proving her innocence. A trip abroad to meet someone who had a sexual relationship with Elizabeth is revealing, but it is the dead woman's journal that leads to the real unearthing of secrets.
The revelations in store for the grief-troubled protagonist involve government complicity in mass murder; the sexual mores of an earlier era and the limits of personal responsibility - as painfully evidenced in the actions of the central character.
In a very different way - but with just as much significance - guilt is at the centre of Robinson's new novel just as it is in his more straightforward police procedurals.