Friday, October 12, 2018

The Book You Have Read: “A Dram of Poison,”
by Charlotte Armstrong

(Editor’s note: This is the 158th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books. Today’s contribution comes from Washington, D.C., resident Erica Wright. She’s the author of three mystery novels starring private investigator Kat Stone: The Red Chameleon (2014), The Granite Moth (2015), and The Blue Kingfisher, which will be released later this month by Polis Books. Wright has also penned two poetry collections and is the poetry editor at Guernica Magazine. In her note to me, explaining how she came to be interested in Charlotte Armstrong’s 12th novel—the subject of her essay below—Wright explained, “I bought A Dram of Poison because the protagonist is a poetry professor, and I thought it might be fun to see if I recognized myself at all.”)

For an Edgar Award-winning novel, A Dram of Poison (1956) is light on crime. In fact, the only known infraction is petty theft. Yet Charlotte Armstrong managed to create a nuanced and at times breath-stealing story out of a missing bottle labeled 333. It takes a steady hand to set up the pieces for this novel’s crisis, a multi-page pursuit that squeezes a growing—and charming—cast of characters into a Chrysler DeSoto.

In some ways, A Dram of Poison follows a neat three-act structure. In Act One, a mild-mannered poetry professor takes pity on a colleague’s daughter when she loses her father and has nowhere to turn. What starts as a charity project turns into something more interesting, and 55-year-old Kenneth Gibson proposes that 33-year-old Rosemary James become his wife. His strictly platonic plan swims along with surprising success. Rosie grows stronger, and Gibson hardly recognizes the woman he invited into his life. It quickly becomes apparent that Gibson has grown fond of her and maybe even loves her. The central question of the first third of this mystery is not “Who done it?” but rather “What makes someone fall in love?” Indeed, the start of A Dram of Poison is almost tender; but of course we know their Eden cannot last, no matter how much time Rosie spends tending their new garden.

If this novel were a romance, it would end after the couple’s first kiss outside a fancy restaurant on a rainy night. But because we know this is noir, the couple must climb into their ancient car, must try to make their way home despite the weather, and must unfortunately slam headfirst into another vehicle. The accident leaves Rosie with a few bumps and bruises, but Gibson is badly injured. In Act Two, his sister arrives and, while well-meaning, disrupts the gentle arrangement that Gibson and Rosie enjoyed. Most notably, she suggests that the age difference makes it impossible for Rosie to truly love her husband, and wouldn’t she prefer the handsome young widower next door? Gibson spirals and eventually decides to kill himself so that his wife can be happy. He steals some poison, stores it in an olive oil bottle, and promptly loses it.

In Act Three, a novel that could be described as domestic becomes a suspenseful hunt for the missing poison. Gibson, Rosie, their neighbor, a bus driver, a society matron, an artist, and his muse join the search one at a time, each offering their own unique commentary on the events that have occurred. Fear that somebody might be killed accidentally leads to a few unwelcome truths coming out before the satisfying conclusion of this tale.

A Dram of Poison is surprising from start to finish, defying genre expectations at every turn. The lively tone is laced with pathos, a poignant sympathy for the poetry professor—also a veteran of two wars—who is better at making sacrifices than making himself happy. The central mystery might not be who has the poison, but rather something more philosophical. Armstrong returns again and again to the theme of instinct versus reason and which is more powerful. Gibson’s sister argues convincingly that “[p]eople will act from the blood and animal residue.” With this worldview, she believes that Rosie crashed the car on purpose—subconsciously of course, but no less dramatically—in order to be free of her husband. A neat trick that Armstrong pulls off is convincing Gibson of this possibility, while any observant reader can see that the crash was indeed an accident. Moreover, Rosie is in love with her husband, marriage of convenience be damned.

His veins full of Shakespeare and Catullus, Gibson believes that “a man could put intelligence and intuition against odds and make progress.” That is, people can fight against their baser instincts, especially when armed with education. Or, as the bus driver they meet neatly explains, “How can you read poetry and not notice the universe?” As a poetry editor, I’ll admit that it is a question that appeals to me. On a bone-deep level, I believe that art makes us more aware of the world, even helps us understand it a little, and I suspect that Armstrong believed this, as well.

Armstrong’s body of work is impressive and includes 29 novels alongside short stories, plays, and screenplays. In addition to receiving the Edgar Award for A Dram of Poison, she was nominated for that honor on five additional occasions, the last time being in 1966, three years before she died. Interest in her work was has been revived, due in part to Sarah Weinman’s 2015 collection, Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & ’50s, which included Armstrong’s Mischief (1950). In a collaboration between Open Road Integrated Media and The Mysterious Press, Armstrong’s books are also being reissued with gorgeous, updated covers.

The continued popularity of her writing makes sense given her intriguing plots and sharp insights into human character. A Dram of Poison combines romance, suspense, and philosophy to create a story that feels, yes, a bit quaint at times, but also as relevant today as it was six decades ago. As I refresh the New York Times homepage for the fifth time today, I see myself in the bus driver’s warning: “You know who is limited? Fella who reads nothing but the newspaper, watches nothing but his own p’s and q’s, plus TV in the evening, works for nothing but money, buys nothing with the money but a car or a steak, does what he thinks the neighbors do, and don’t notice the universe.” A philosophy of looking up, of looking beyond our screens, is a philosophy I can embrace. All the better if our gaze falls upon a poem or a story.

READ MORE:Perilous Discoveries: The Feminist Murder-Mysteries of Charlotte Armstrong,” by Imran Khan (PopMatters).

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