The first half of this sinister, surreal psychological thriller is deeply intoxicating, darkly beguiling and more than a little bewildering. It’s magnificent modern gothic which unleashes a powerful fever dream upon the familiar mechanics of the police procedural. One chapter we’re in a research lab, running mass spectrometry to identify peculiar samples from a series of dead bodies. The next, we’re being seduced by the psychotropic wiles of la fée verte and all her arcane rituals.
Reality warps as toxicologist Caleb Maddox stumbles into the seamy sidestreets of old San Francisco. His precarious research project – into the biological processes underpinning the experience of pain – falls by the wayside when his world is overwhelmed by green-tinged wormwood and a woman whose affections are as unpredictable as the absinthe she offers.
Author Jonathan Moore switches seamlessly from a skilful presentation of solid science – using familiar forensic methods of detection into an intriguing serial killer murder mystery – to the disorienting hallucinations of sexually-driven delirium. Every page offers a new conundrum. Why did Caleb’s girlfriend abruptly reject him so violently? What awful atrocity scarred his childhood? Who is the shadowy, sensual femme fatale? What links a series of unexplained, sadistic deaths? What excruciating agony awaits? Gripping doesn’t begin to describe it.
And then the whole elegant edifice collapses under its own invention with a ‘plot twist’ so predictable it made the annual arrival of the Easter bunny resemble outright revelation. Somewhere around the mid-point, I started saying ‘no, no, don’t do that thing.’ And then author Moore went and did exactly that thing. All of the brilliant build-up, the intrigue and atmosphere, led inexorably to… the inevitable. What a wasted opportunity to do something stunning.
The trouble with The Poison Artist is that the first half is so good, so plausible, so seductive that any ending might’ve been a disappointment. But here’s the thing. Even though the ‘reveal’ seriously derails the credibility of the early narrative, and telegraphs its arrival in ten-foot high letters, and even though I hated that happening, and even though my suspension of disbelief was utterly undermined and I found the finale frankly daft… despite all those things, I’m still thrilled that I encountered The Poison Artist.
And I have no hesitation recommending this book. Seldom have I seen the subtle lure of erotic obsession so beautifully rendered in all its perfidious finery. Worth reading for that alone.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Poison Artist by Jonathan Moore is available in various formats