I have read several novels by Marjorie Bowen this year and this is one of my favourites so far. First published in 1936, The Poisoners originally appeI have read several novels by Marjorie Bowen this year and this is one of my favourites so far. First published in 1936, The Poisoners originally appeared under one of her other pseudonyms, George Preedy, and now that I’ve read it I can see why she chose to use a different name for this one. Although this book, like the others I’ve read, is set in the past, it is more of a mystery/thriller which should appeal to readers of vintage crime as well as to fans of historical fiction.
The story takes place in 17th century Paris during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV, and revolves around a famous murder scandal known as L’affaire des poisons (Affair of the poisons). Our hero is Charles Desgrez, newly arrived in Paris with his wife, Solange, to take up a position as Lieutenant of Police and keen to make a name for himself. At the beginning of the novel, the couple are attending a party for Solange’s birthday, when one of the guests – the Widow Bosse, a supplier of perfumes – drunkenly boasts of becoming rich by helping wives to become widows. “I’ve only got three more poisonings to do and I shall be a very wealthy woman,” she says.
To satisfy his curiosity, Desgrez asks Solange to visit the Widow in disguise, posing as a wife unhappy with her husband – and he is shocked by what he learns. Reporting his findings to the Chief of Police, M. de la Reynie, the two begin to investigate and gradually discover that the network of poisoners operating in Paris is much larger and more sophisticated than they could ever have imagined. To complicate things further, some of the people involved are closely connected to the Sun King himself – so Desgrez and de la Reynie must find a way to bring the criminals to justice while avoiding the publicity the King would prefer to avoid.
The Affair of the Poisons is a dark and fascinating episode in Parisian history. I’ve read about it before, in The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley, and it was good to revisit the same subject from a different angle. As far as I can tell, Bowen’s novel sticks to the basic historical facts of The Affair, with the addition of a few fictional characters and plot developments. The result is an atmospheric and suspenseful crime novel featuring fortune tellers and spies, counterfeiters and apothecaries, an empty house which hides sinister secrets, mysterious letters marked with the sign of a pink carnation, and a society thought to be involved in black magic.
The plot is excellent – fast-paced and exciting – but there’s not a lot to say about the characters in The Poisoners. Many of them are based on real historical figures, such as the king’s mistress, Madame de Montespan, and the notorious poisoner, La Voisin. Although they are all interesting to read about, none of them are developed in any great depth. I enjoyed reading about the work of the police officers in the novel (I hadn’t realised the French police were so well organised in the 17th century, which is something Bowen talks about in her author’s note) and I did like Charles and Solange Desgrez, but they are not the sort of characters who stay in your thoughts after finishing the book. This is a novel you would read for the plot rather than the characters, and maybe this is one of the differences between the books which were originally published under the Marjorie Bowen and George Preedy names.
If you’ve read anything by Marjorie Bowen (or any of Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell’s other pseudonyms) I’d love to hear what you thought! ...more
“For the most beautiful”. These are the words inscribed on a golden apple presented by Paris, Prince of Troy, to the goddess Aphrodite whom he has cho“For the most beautiful”. These are the words inscribed on a golden apple presented by Paris, Prince of Troy, to the goddess Aphrodite whom he has chosen over her rivals, Hera and Athena. In return, the goddess rewards Paris with Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman in the world – but unfortunately, Helen is already married. Not surprisingly, her husband, Menelaus, is enraged by the theft of his wife and sends the mighty armies of Greece, led by his brother King Agamemnon, to the shores of Troy to bring her back.
The story of the Trojan War is one that has been told many times before and with which a lot of readers will already be familiar before picking up Emily Hauser’s debut novel, For the Most Beautiful. However, this book retells the story from a feminine perspective and focuses on two female characters – Krisayis and Briseis – who both have important roles to play yet have not been given much attention in other versions such as Homer’s Iliad.
Krisayis (whose name is usually spelled Chryseis) is the daughter of a Trojan priest and companion to Cassandra, a princess of Troy. As the novel begins, we learn that Krisayis is in love with Cassandra’s brother, Troilus, and that, much against her wishes, she is about to become a priestess devoted to the god Apulunas. Our other main character, Briseis, is a princess of Lyrnessus who has unexpectedly found love with her husband Mynes, despite growing up under the shadow of a prophecy which seemed to rule out the possibility of happiness. With the onset of war, the lives of both young women are thrown into turmoil; their paths cross while held captive in the Greek camp, but will they be able to change fate and save Troy?
I found For the Most Beautiful a very enjoyable read. I think it was probably aimed at a younger audience but there was enough depth to keep an adult reader happy too. Having only read two or three other novels about Troy (including Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Judith Starkston’s Hand of Fire) I found that while I knew the basic outline of the story, a lot of it was new to me and the approach the author took made it feel fresh and original. It was interesting to see how Emily Hauser interpreted the characters of not just Krisayis and Briseis but also Achilles, Patroclus, Paris, Hector, Cassandra and others.
The stories of our two heroines unfold in alternating chapters and I thought these sections of the book were well written and emotionally engaging (both Briseis and Krisayis suffer the death of a loved one and then face further ordeals and difficult decisions after their capture by the Greeks). However, these chapters are interspersed with short scenes in which we witness the gods on their mountain observing and manipulating the lives of the mortals below – and this is the one aspect of the book which really didn’t work for me. The writing style in these sections is quite different – the language feels much more modern and the tense changes from past to present – and the gods come across as bored, shallow and petulant. I think I can see what the author was trying to do here and I’m sure other readers will enjoy the light-hearted, comedy feel of these scenes, but it just made me impatient to get back to Briseis and Krisayis!
After finishing this book, I was pleased to discover that it’s the start of a new Golden Apple trilogy. Greek mythology is not a subject that particularly interests me, but I was still captivated by For the Most Beautiful and am looking forward to reading another two books by Emily Hauser. ...more
Marjorie Bowen (1885-1952) was a very prolific author of historical fiction, romance, crime and horror, producing over one hundred and fifty books durMarjorie Bowen (1885-1952) was a very prolific author of historical fiction, romance, crime and horror, producing over one hundred and fifty books during her lifetime. Endeavour Press have gradually been making some of them available to modern readers and there are several that I’m interested in reading, but I decided to start with this one, Dickon, as it is set during one of my favourite historical periods: the Wars of the Roses.
The title refers to Richard III (Dickon, of course, is a nickname for Richard) and the novel follows Richard throughout his entire life, beginning with the moment when, as a child, he learns that his father, the Duke of York, and elder brother, Edmund, have been killed at the Battle of Wakefield. The book is divided into three sections; the first is called The Three Suns, which refers to the parhelion which appeared in the sky at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, but could also be a pun on the three remaining 'sons' of the Duke of York – and covers Richard’s childhood up to the point where his brother wins the throne for York, becoming King Edward IV.
The middle section, The Bear and Ragged Staff (a reference to the emblem of the Earl of Warwick) concentrates on 1470-1472, the period of the rebellion of Warwick and George, Duke of Clarence. Finally, The White Boar takes us through Edward’s death and the period immediately afterwards – Richard’s own brief reign and his tragic end at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. There is no doubt that Richard suffered a lot of misfortune and tragedy and this is symbolised in the novel in the form of Jon Fogge, a man-at-arms whom Richard believes has been haunting him throughout his life, bringing bad news and bad luck to the Plantagenets.
Dickon was published in 1929 and I think it’s fair to say that it’s quite different from the majority of historical fiction that is being published today. The dialogue has a very old-fashioned feel, being sprinkled with words like ‘thou’, ‘thee’, ‘doth’ and ‘hath’, something that seems to have been dropped by most modern historical novelists, and the whole novel also has an air of innocence, with sex scenes only hinted at rather than explicitly described. I do like 'older' historical fiction but I suspect some readers will find this book too archaic and romanticised.
In her preface to the novel, Marjorie Bowen says that she has studied all of the known sources and "has violated no known fact, nor presented any character or action in any light that is not probable, as well as possible". I did notice a few historical inaccuracies, but as I’m not completely sure how much material was available in 1929 and how much has only come to light in more recent years, I’m not going to be too critical. There are also a lot of controversies surrounding Richard III and his reign – there is no one version of events that has been accepted by everybody – so different authors and historians do have different theories and different interpretations. I was particularly curious to see how Bowen was going to approach the mystery of the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, so I was disappointed to find that her solution was simply to ignore the whole episode!
Richard himself is portrayed as sensitive, loyal and trusting, a brave warrior and a devoted brother, father and husband. His character lacks the depth and complexity I would have liked and sometimes seems too good to be true, although I can appreciate that this is one of the earliest pro-Ricardian novels, written decades before books like The Daughter of Time or The Sunne in Splendour, and that the author was trying to provide an alternative to the usual view of Richard as the hunchbacked villain of Shakespeare’s play.
If you’re completely new to this period of history and the life of Richard III, this book is maybe not the best place to start, but I did find it quite enjoyable and a good addition to my collection of Wars of the Roses fiction. I will be reading more by Marjorie Bowen....more