Before the Poison

Before the Poison

by Peter Robinson

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From New York Times bestselling author Peter Robinson comes this mesmerizing story-within-a-story about a man pulled into a murder from the past—and his quest to uncover the truth.

Quietly reeling from the death of his beloved wife, Chris Lowndes decides to return to the Yorkshire Dales after twenty-five successful years spent in Hollywood composing film scores. He purchases Kilnsgate House, a charming old mansion deep in the country, but something about the place disturbs him. His unease intensifies when he learns Kilnsgate was once the scene of a sensational murder. More than fifty years earlier, prominent doctor Ernest Arthur Fox was poisoned there, allegedly by his beautiful and much younger wife, Grace, who was subsequently tried, condemned, and hanged for the crime.

His curiosity piqued, Chris decides to investigate, and the more he discovers, the more convinced he becomes of Grace's innocence. Despite warnings to leave it be, his quest for the truth is soon leading him through dark shadows of the past . . . and into a strange web of secrets that lie perilously close to the present.

A complex, multi-layered thriller, Before the Poison is one of Peter Robinson’s most brilliant novels—and one readers won’t soon forget.

“A gripping tale that brings to mind not only old-time Hollywood but also British ‘golden age’ storytelling in the Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier tradition.”—Wall Street Journal


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062101297
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/21/2012
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 139
File size: 557 KB

About the Author

One of the world’s most popular and acclaimed writers, Peter Robinson is the bestselling, award-winning author of the Inspector Banks series; he has also written two short-story collections and three standalone novels, which combined have sold more than ten million copies around the world. Among his many honors and prizes are the Edgar Award, the CWA (UK) Dagger in the Library Award, and Sweden’s Martin Beck Award. He divides his time between Toronto and England.

Read an Excerpt

Famous Trials: Grace Elizabeth Fox, April 1953, by Sir Charles Hamilton Morley
Grace Elizabeth Fox rose from her bed and dressed with the aid of her young Attending Officer Mary Swann at 6.30 AM on the morning of 23rd April, 1953. She ate a light breakfast of toast, marmalade and tea, then she busied herself writing letters to her family and friends. After a small brandy to steady her nerves shortly before 8.00 AM, she spent the following hour alone with the Chaplain.
At thirty seconds before 9.00 AM, Mr. Albert Pierrepoint and his assistant entered Grace’s cell, and with his usual polite deference and dispatch, Mr. Pierrepoint tied her hands behind her back with a soft calfskin strap and escorted her the short distance to the Execution House directly above. It was a grey, rainy morning, and the stone steps were dark and slick with rain. The small party entered the House, where the Governor, the doctor and two witnesses were already waiting, at 9.00 AM precisely. According to later accounts, Grace comported herself with great dignity throughout, and she never faltered in her steps or uttered a sound, except for a brief shudder and audible inhalation of breath when she first saw the rope.
Once at the gallows, she was placed in position over the chalked ‘T’ on the trapdoor, and the assistant pinioned her ankles with a leather strap. Mr. Pierrepoint took from his pocket a white cotton hood, which he placed over Grace’s head, then he carefully and gently adjusted the leather-sheathed noose around her neck. When all was to his satisfaction, he stepped back, removed the safety pin and pushed the lever away from him in one sharp, swift motion. The trapdoor opened and Grace fell to her death. The whole business, from the cell to the eternal hereafter, took no longer than fifteen seconds.
After a brief examination by the prison doctor, Grace’s body was left hanging for the regulation hour, after which time it was removed and washed, then an autopsy was performed. The findings were that she died instantaneously of a ‘fracture-dislocation of the spine at C.2 with a 2 inch gap and transverse separation of the spinal cord at the same level’. The pathologist also found ‘fractures of both wings of the hyoid and the right wing of the thyroid cartilage’. Grace’s larynx was also fractured.
The following day, after Grace’s sister Felicity had formally identified the body, a coroner’s inquest reported her death: ‘Twenty-third April 1953 at H.M. Prison, Leeds: Grace Elizabeth Fox, Female, 40 years, Housewife of Kilnsgate House, Kilnsgarthdale, in the District of Richmond, Yorkshire (North Riding). Cause of Death: Injuries to the central nervous system consequent upon judicial hanging.’ The Governor entered in his daily log the simple words, ‘The sentence of death on Grace Elizabeth Fox was carried out by means of execution,’ and Grace’s body was buried within the prison grounds.
October 2010
I had promised myself that when I turned sixty I would go home. Laura thought it was a great idea, but when the day finally came, I was standing at her graveside in the New England rain, crying my eyes out. All the more reason to go, I thought.
 ‘In two hundred yards, bear right.’
I drove straight on.
‘In four hundred yards, bear right.’
I continued driving under the canopy of trees, leaves falling and swirling around me. The screen froze, then flickered and dissolved, reforming into new shapes that didn’t in the least resemble the landscape I was driving through.
‘Please turn around and turn left in three hundred yards.’
I didn’t think this could be true. I was sure that my turning lay still about half a mile ahead to the left. It was easy to miss, I had been told, especially if you have never made it before. Satnavs obviously behave strangely in Yorkshire. I decided to leave it on and find out what it said next.
I slowed to a crawl, kept my eyes open, and there it was, a gap in the drystone wall on my left, which resembled a neglected farm track more than anything else, though I could see by the tyre marks that someone else had been that way recently. There was no signpost, and an old wooden farm gate hung open at an angle, broken away from the rusty hinge at the top. The opening was just about wide enough for a small delivery van.
It had turned into a gorgeous day, I thought, as I guided the Volvo through the narrow entrance. The hidden dale opened up to me beyond the overhanging trees like some magical land never seen by human eye before. The car bumped over a cattle grid and splashed through a puddle. It was hard to believe the deluge that had almost washed me off the road between Ripon and Masham, but that’s Yorkshire weather for you. If you don’t like it, my father used to say, wait ten minutes or drive ten miles.
‘Please turn back now,’ the satnav said. I switched it off and continued along the lane.
The grass was lush green after the heavy summer rains, the pale blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds, the trees resplendent in their muted autumn colours of gold, lemon and russet. They might not be as dramatic as the fall leaves in Vermont, but they have a beauty all of their own, nonetheless. My window was open a few inches, and I could hear the birdsong and smell the wet grass.
I was driving west along the valley bottom, just to the right of Kilnsgarthdale Beck, which was running high, almost busting its banks. The whole dale was probably no more than half a mile wide and two miles long, its bottom a flat swathe of about two hundred yards, along which the beck and the lane ran side by side. Grassy slopes rose gently to a height of about fifty feet or so on either side, a silvery stream trickling down here and there to join the beck, and treelines ran along the top of each side. A few cattle grazed on the slope to my right, which I guessed was attached to a farm out of sight, over the hill. Kilnsgarthdale is a small, secluded dale flanked by woods and drystone walls. You won’t see it on any but the most detailed of maps.
I passed a ruined stone barn and the remnants of a drystone wall, which had once marked the boundary of a field on the opposite hillside, but there were no other signs of human habitation until I neared Kilnsgate House.
The house was set about twenty yards back from the lane, on my right, beyond a low drystone garden wall with a green wooden gate in need of painting. I paused and looked through the car window. It was hard to see much more than the chimneys, slate roof and the tops of a couple of upper windows from the lane, because the rest was obscured by trees, and the sloping garden was quite overgrown. I had a curious sensation that the shy, half-hidden house was waiting for me, that it had been waiting for some time. I gave a little shudder, then I turned off the engine and sat for a moment, breathing in the sweet air and luxuriating in the silence. So this was it, I thought, my journey’s end. Or its beginning.
I know it sounds odd, but I had seen Kilnsgate House only in photographs up to this point. During the entire purchase process, I had been involved in a massive work project back in Los Angeles, and I simply hadn’t had the time to jump on a plane and fly over for a viewing. The whole business had been handled by the estate agent, Heather Barlow, and a solicitor, transacted via emails, couriers, phone calls and wire transfers.
Kilnsgate House was by far the best of many I had viewed on the Internet, and the price was right. A bargain, in fact. It had been used as a rental property for some years, and there was no present occupant. The owner lived abroad and showed no interest in the place, which was held in trust for him, or her, by a solicitor in Northallerton. There would be no problems with onward chains and gazumping, and all those other odd practices the English go in for when buying and selling houses. I could move in, Mrs Barlow had assured me, as soon as I wanted.
She had brought up the issue of isolation, and I saw now exactly what she meant. This had posed a problem, along with the size of the house, when it came to renting the place to tourists. I would be cut off from the world here, she had said. The nearest neighbours lived more than a mile away on a farm, over the other side of the hill, beyond the treeline, and the nearest town, Richmond, was two miles away. I told her that was fine with me.
I got out of the car, walked through the creaky gate, then turned and stood by the wall to admire the view of the opposite daleside. About halfway up stood a stone ruin, framed by the trees, half buried in the hill. I thought it was perhaps a folly of some kind.
The only other thing that Mrs Barlow had been particularly concerned about was my attitude towards the grand piano. It would be possible to move it out, she said in one of our many telephone conversations, but difficult. There would be no extra charge for it, of course, should I decide to keep it, though she would quite understand if I did want rid of it. I couldn’t believe my luck. I had been about to order an upright piano, or perhaps even a small digital model. Now I had a grand. All I would need, Mrs Barlow went on, surprised and pleased at my acceptance and excitement, was a piano tuner.
Although I was unaware of it at this point, Kilnsgate House also had a history, which would soon come to interest me, perhaps even to obsess me, some might argue. A good estate agent, and Heather Barlow was good, clearly becomes adept in the art of omission.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Before the Poison 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
tedfeit0 More than 1 year ago
Diverting his attention from the popular and successful Inspector Banks series, the author has written a murder mystery of a different genre. Instead of a police procedural, he has undertaken to use a variety of literary devices to unravel the truth behind a death that took place sixty years ago. It begins when Chris Lowndes, reeling from the death of his wife, decides to buy a home on the Yorkshire Dales. He purchases Kilnsgate House, a large, bleak, isolated structure in which he hopes to recover from his depression, and, perhaps write a sonata instead of the incidental music for motion pictures which he did for many years on the West Coast of the US. No sooner does he take possession than he becomes haunted by its past: Grace Fox, the former owner, was accused and convicted of poisoning her husband, a respected local physician. And she was hanged for it. Chris becomes so obsessed that he endeavors to “discover” the truth, initially convinced that she was innocent of the charge. The author leads the reader (and Chris) from supposition to fact, alternating excerpts of Grace’s wartime diary (she was a nurse, first in Singapore, then escaping the Japanese, suffering a series of devastating experiences, finally serving in France before returning to her husband at Kilnsgate House) and various interviews with aged characters, including her younger lover now living in Paris and a man who as a seven-year-old lived with the Foxes for a time as an evacuee at the beginning of World War II. The shifts in the plot, as Chris conducts his “investigation,” are truly ingenious, keeping the reader off balance to a fare-thee-well. The characters are well-drawn, and the author undertook deep research to create Grace’s diary. While the novel may seem at times somewhat dry and slow to read, it constantly draws the reader forward and is well worth reading, and it is highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This mystery involves an expat Hollywood movie composer returning to Yorkshire to live in a rambling farm house he discovers was the home of a woman who was executed for murdering her husband in 1953. The mystery continues with a dual narrative of the woman's diary as a nurse in the Far East during the Second World War, and the composer's investigation of persons and facts pertaining to her case, with the view of proving her innocence. There are some twists and turns to the investigation but the composer comes up with solution he is satisfied with, but possibly not the reader. There are many references to classical and some to rock music which readers may not be familiar with.
bookwalker More than 1 year ago
Chris Lowndes, a recent widow, escapes Los Angeles for the isolation of a mansion in Yorkshire. Soon after buying Kilnsgate he delves into its past which stems from a murder/hanging. He becomes obsessed with proving the hanged wife, Grace Fox, innocent, and in doing so meets many people from her past. In an unexpected twist, Chris discovers a link between Grace's life and his own. This book gives lots of detail of Yorkshire, which I visited more than ten years ago. Besides a murder mystery, you will discover history from the 1930's, 40's and 50's. The ending was a complete surprise to me in many ways. A truly satisfying read!
cubicleblindnessKM More than 1 year ago
Chris is a widower and now, later in life has decided to return home to settle down, purchasing a house out in the country for a quite place to work on a new project. He becomes obsessed with the story of the past owners’ of the house, which turns out to be a famous recent murder cases. Everywhere he looks in the house he feels Grace’s presence and cannot escape the nagging feeling there was more to her life than being accused of murdering her husband. The writing is so atmospheric and really takes the reader to a relaxing and sometimes melancholy world. The descriptions of the house and the land were breath-taking. It gives the reader the feeling of really being there, in this gorgeous mansion, expansive lands and quaint local stores and pubs. This is my first read from author Peter Robinson. I loved the writing style and feelings that the story evoked. I must admit that I was expecting for the story to be more edgy as the clues began to unravel but it was like reading a classic crime novel; a slow unraveling of details and not much of a “big” moment, but an ending that lingers with you. There are times when we are taken deep into the aftermath of World War II as Chris learns more about Grace’s life as a nurse; inlcuding pages of historical information about the process of war and the use of poisons and gas testing. About halfway through, we are introduced to Grace more directly through her old writings and get to see her life from her own perspective which was interesting and really puts us in her head. I had to take the book in sections and didn’t experience a lot of gasping, or moments that caught me off-guard. Through his research and travels to find out about Grace’s life, Chris learns many things, solving more than one mystery along the way. These side stories held more of the “edge” I was looking for in the main narrative. It is very much a character driven story, not only revolving around the obsession Chris has with Grace, but about his own life as well. He’s distracted from the events of his past. Moving to this quiet house was supposed to give him the space and time he needed for his new project, but he cannot concentrate and finds these distractions welcome. The time he takes to learn about Grace lets him come to terms with events from his own life. If you’re looking for a read that is light on the crime and mystery with a slower moving plot line and a gradual revelation of secrets from the past (as well as travels from England to France to Southern Africa), this is your book. It will take you all over the world through the eyes of both Chris and Grace. Before the Poison is a novel of great writing that is both visually aesthetic and emotionally atmospheric.
GreenEyedReader More than 1 year ago
Very good read. Widowed musical score writer moves back to England from the US to an old, isolated house with a past. Protagonist gets involved trying to investigate this history while trying to recover from the death of his wife and writing his own sonata.WW2 connection. Well written. Good storyline with good characters and an unexpected revelation toward the end.
devenish on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story alternates between the mid-1950's and 2010. It begins with the execution by hanging of Grace Fox,for the murder by poison of her husband. In 2010 a troubled composer of film music. Chris Lowndes,buys the isolated Kilnsgate House. he soon discovers that years ago,this was owned by Grace and her doctor husband. Lowndes soon becomes obsessed with the events leading up to the murder and the trial and hanging of Grace Fox.As the book progresses we learn that all is not as it appeared and that Grace is more complex than she seems at first.This is a one-off ,non-series book for Robinson and one of which he can be justly proud.
thehistorychic on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Read from April 29 to 30, 2012Received for ReviewOverall Rating: 4.00Story Rating: 4.25Character Rating: 3.75First thought when Finished: That last half of this book was really well done and kept me riveted!What I Loved: I can't really go into detail about what I loved about Before the Poison or the review would be full of spoilers. I will say there is a distinct point in the middle of the book where we start reading parts of Grace's journal that really, in my opinion, made the book start to sparkle. I was riveted and intrigued. I couldn't turn pages fast enough in an effort to learn what really happened!What I Liked: I liked that there was a twist with the main protagonist that I just didn't seem coming. It did explain much of his behavior that I did not quite understand. The twist also tied together some things that I had been questioning the whole book.What made me go HUH?: There were a few parts of the story I didn't like: the affair was a big one. I just didn't see the need for it but it didn't distract from the story for me. It did make me like the characters a little less though.Final Thought: I think if you are a fan of Peter Robinson, you will like this stand alone novel. I also think if you are history/true crime buff you will enjoy it too. The crime isn't real but the way he hunts down the story reminds of investigation discovery.
delphimo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Peter Robinson usually writes the Inspector Alan Banks series set in England. This book is a deviation from Alan Banks. This story involves the hanging of a young wife for the poisoning of her much older husband. Robinson writes two stories: the one set in the 1950;s and the other set in 2010. An old English manor ties the two stories. The 2010 story involves a grieving widower who watched his beloved wife succumb to cancer. Chris Lowndes, a composer of musical scores for American movies, has decided to leave America and return to England after his wife's death. He purchases the Kilnsgate House in the country without ever viewing the house. The house holds many secrets, especially concerning the doctor, Ernest Fox, and Ernest's death in 1953. Robinson does an excellent job balancing the two stories. The story jumps into action when Chris is given a copy of Grace's journal that she kept during her tour of duty as a nurse during WWII. Robinson's biggest detraction is his love of classical music and his constant mention of classic recordings.
rsbrn1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was the first Peter Robinson book I have read, and it was great!!From the beginning to the end I couldn't put it down. Since I am a nurse, I could so identifiy with Grace Fox and understood her dilemma.I would really recommend this book to friends. Since I have yet to read more of Peter Robinson, I dont know if this is typical of his writing, but if it is I am hooked!
EdGoldberg on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Peter Robinson is known for his Inspector Alan Banks British mysteries. However, Before the Poison, is a stand alone book, somewhat mysterious, but not your typical procedural mystery. Chris Lowndes is obsessed with two women: his wife, Laura, who succumbed to cancer a year ago and Grace Elizabeth Fox. Chris, a transplanted Brit, moved back to Britain from L.A. and purchased Grace¿s secluded estate. It had been vacant for some time. His real estate broker failed to mention one key fact, until after the deal was consummated. Grace was convicted in the murder of her husband and was hanged in 1953. Upon hearing this, Chris becomes obsessed with Grace, her trial and whether indeed she was guilty. Before the Poison bounces back and forth between the current day and an account of the 1953 drama in the form of a segment of a book Famous Trials or a segment of Grace¿s journal written during World War II. Each chapter starts with a short segment of the book or journal and continues as Chris attempts to uncover the truth. It¿s funny, because my first Peter Robinson novel, In a Dry Season, also alternated between the 1940s and the present. While, indeed, there is a murder in this book, I would not call it a mystery. I would call it an engrossing tale of a man obsessed. Robinson is a marvelous writer, more literary than most mystery writers. As such, one reads his books for the details and descriptions and use of language. Whether or not Chris solves the `crime¿ is irrelevant because you get caught up in his life and feelings and actions. Robinson has written over 20 books, too many for me to catch up on from the beginning. However, I am an avid fan of his and will read all his forthcoming books, as should you. Mystery or mysterious, Robinson is on my reading list for sure.
BusyProfessional More than 1 year ago
Wow, what a terrific book. I expected a mystery, but Robinson delves into pieces of history I never knew about. Blew me away. Read this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
CandyBoo More than 1 year ago
This book kept my attention and it wasn't bad, it was just slower then I expected. Thought the story was going to have more of a take you back in time and learn the real truth kind of setting. Don't get me wrong it was a good book and kept me reading, but just wasn't what I was looking for going into the story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MJaneTX More than 1 year ago
It is wonderful to be back in the Yorkshire Dales, for better or worse, with Peter Robinson. I've enjoyed his Inspector Banks series and was prepared to like this one from the start. More standalones if you please Mr. Robinson.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
whatsnew More than 1 year ago
I have read all of Mr. Robinsons novels. All of his Inspector Banks series,and I have always thouroughlly enjoyed every thing hes written Dont you forget me and when another novel is written ,please notify me..
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Book was interesting but hard to keep your interest sometimes.....