Anne Hocking is another of the many second tier mystery writers who, when she put her mind to it, could concoct a murder tale populated with fascinating characters and perplexing events without a shred of fanciful gadgets, quirky antics from an eccentric detective or any other froth that tends to make a lot of people turn away from detective novels of the early 20th century. Poison is A Bitter Brew is one smart, calculating and thoroughly engrossing story.
All this came as a surprise to me because the plot sounded very run-of-the-mill. At the heart of the story you have your basic "Who killed the heirs?" tale and one in which money seems to be the underlying motive for a series of poisoning deaths. But which death is an accident and which is murder? And could one of them actually be a suicide? This is all left up to Chief Inspector William Austen to discover as he infiltrates the repressed household of Augusta Milverton and her odd group of relatives. There is a restrictive legacy attached to the Milverton estate and Augusta is forced to deal with its misogynistic instructions from her long dead, woman-hating father. The Milverton money can only be passed down through the male lineage as outlined in her father's will and Augusta, one of these familiar "spinster for life" women we encounter in detective fiction, is not happy with the group of nephews who are her immediate relatives nor how they line up in their chronology. Charles Temple, the youngest, least responsible yet the most appealing of the nephews is her favorite. She would like him to be the primary legatee but cannot change her will thanks to the legal entanglements created by her father. She is stuck with the philandering dullard George Hayle, the oldest and first in line to her fortune followed by the asexual and aloof Osbert Garstin. Neither earn much respect or affection from Augusta.
It's all very familiar, isn't it? Hundreds of detective novels have been written revolving around this timeworn plot. But Hocking makes the story immensely readable. The characters are so well drawn from the usual garrulous and devoted servant Tamsin, who knows all and intuits more, to the central character of imperious Augusta Milverton. Even Austen has some traits that raise him out of the middle ground of second rate detectives. Hocking who comes from a literary family also has fun with literary allusions. The characters quote from poetry and literature, there are references to detective fiction with Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey name-dropped at two key points. One notable highlight: Austen lectures his cohort Sergeant Pendarvis on the merits of reading detective fiction. He says the books remind him of what many policemen tend to forget is key to crime solving -- "the insistence on the importance of the human factor." Hocking believes this wholeheartedly as well. As the story progresses in Poison Is a Bitter Brew Hocking increasingly focusses on the complexity of the "murderer personality" as she has Austen call it. He comes to the astonishing conclusion based on evidence and circumstance that there are most likely two killers in the house, both of whom share a similar psychological make-up. Family devotion takes on a far serious note and characters flittering about in the shadows will advance to center stage in an eyebrow raising denouement that mixes justice with sorrow.
Anne Hocking's books were mostly published in the UK with a only a few titles receiving US editions. Of all her books Poison is A Bitter Brew seems to be the most easily found. It's the first book I've read of hers and according to her bibliography the third of her detective novels featuring Inspector Austen. Though on the surface it may appear to be a tale all too often told in Hocking's capable hands this story of money and love, greed and desire, is carried off with panache and grace.
I've knocked another title off my Golden Age Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Bingo card. This one fits space O5 - "Method of murder in the title". Trying to get this card filled by October 15. Think I can do it?