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The Poison Artist by Jonathan Moore

January 27, 2016

Dr. Caleb Maddox is a crack San Francisco toxicologist leading a ground-breaking study of the human pain threshold based on minute analysis of chemical markers. He has also just broken up with his artist girlfriend after she discovered a shocking family secret in his past.

Seeking solace, Caleb finds a dark, old-fashioned saloon called House of Shields, and is mesmerised when a beautiful woman materialises out of the shadows, dressed like a 1940s movie star. The enigmatic Emmeline shares a pouring of absinthe with him, brushes his arm and vanishes.

As he pursues her through the brooding, night-time city, desperate to see her again, he simultaneously becomes entangled in a serial murder investigation that has the police stymied – men gone missing, fished out of the bay, with no clue as to how they met their end – until Caleb’s analysis of the chemical markers in their bodies reveals that each one was tortured to death.

Also present are some of the key components of absinthe. As Caleb finally looks forward to a night spent alone with Emmeline, part of his mind wonders if behind the seductive vision is something utterly terrifying…

I am glad I chose this book to read. Quite different to anything I have read in a long while, this is a novel with the atmosphere of a 1930’s Hollywood film noir. Dark and suspenseful, it is richly atmospheric and the writing seductively draws you in to the tale.

Caleb Maddox is a doctor of toxicology, working on a difficult project dealing with pain. As we meet him, he is in the midst of a break up with his partner, Bridget, for reasons we only learn of towards the end of the novel. He sets out to drown his sorrows in one of San Francisco’s late night bars.

There he is drawn to a very beautiful and quite mysterious woman,  Emmeline, who makes a profound impact upon him. He is determined that he will find her again and his obsession with her grows as he remembers her fragrance, her touch and the way she offered an enchanting depth of promise. Even the preparation of her drink of choice is a ritual that he finds compelling. In this case, absinthe really does make his heart grow fonder.

Meanwhile, Caleb’s long time friend, Henry who is the city’s Medical Examiner, is dealing with an influx of dead bodies from a serial killer who is disposing of the victims through the sewage outlets in San Francisco Bay.

Caleb has some theories that may help Henry, but as he investigates, he soon finds links between these deaths and the mysterious woman. And as he finds her again and is drawn ever further into her dark embrace, it is clear that he is prepared to risk everything to be with this woman.

I loved the way this book is written. So many things are hinted at, but never quite explicitly brought forward, so, for example, we piece together Caleb’s backstory as the novel progresses. A really engaging and very well written book.

The Poison Artist is published on 11 February by Orion

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