Famous trials: Grace Elizabeth Fox, April 1953, by Sir Charles Hamilton Morley
Grace Elizabeth Fox rose from her bed and dressed with the aid of her young Attending Officer Mary Swann at 6.30 AM on the morning of 23 April, 1953. She ate a light breakfast of toast, marmalade and tea, then she busied herself writing letters to her family and friends. After a small brandy to steady her nerves shortly before 8.00 AM, she spent the following hour alone with the Chaplain.
So starts Before the Poison the tale of a fictional murder trial in 1950s England as seen through the eyes of Chris Lowndes a composer for films, who has returned to his native Yorkshire after decades living in the US. Recently bereaved he buys the remote Kilnsgate House unseen as somewhere to compose music and to recover from the loss of his beloved wife Laura.
It doesn’t take Chris long to discover that Kilnsgate House was the scene of a murder some fifty plus years before. On 1 January 1953 Dr Ernest Fox and his younger wife Grace, aged forty, were entertaining two old friends, waited on by their maid Hetty Larkin. The fire was roaring and despite rationing the menu comprised of roast beef, mashed potatoes, roast parsnips and Brussel sprouts followed by that very English desert rhubarb pie and custard. Outside the snow began falling and it didn’t stop, the party was going nowhere and the guest bedroom was made up for Jeremy and Alice Lambert. That night Ernest died and the remaining four inhabitants waited with his body two days until the police and the mortuary van could get to the house. With what he gleans from Grace’s life and learning that his brother was at school, next door to the prison when Grace was hanged, her life and perhaps more importantly the question of her guilt, or innocence, becomes something of an obsession.
With my love of historical crime, this fictionalised account of a murder trial in the 1950s hit just the right note with the details about the key players really coming alive, it was hard to believe that all this was fictional perhaps because the author had clearly done his research so the details were spot on with key references such as Albert Pierrepoint, the most famous of hangmen, adding hooks to hang the case on. With our protagonist being a composer the numerous references to music are completely in sync with the story unfolding and provide a gentrified backdrop to a story that delves into the past to a time where perception was everything. Fictional this may be, but Peter Robinson makes good points about why a woman may be suspected of murder, particularly if it was thought that the woman didn’t hold the highest of morals.
The story is of Chris in 2010 researching the crime, the details of the murder and the trial are presented in excerpts from the book, Greatest Trials and later on some diary excerpts that give further context to the key player’s life. This made for tantalising reading with the details forming a natural part of the story-telling, a clever device that allowed Chris’s narrative to focus on his next step in his discovery.
I haven’t read any of the Inspector Banks books but if they are anywhere near as absorbing as I found Before the Poison to be, I need to check them out sooner rather than later.
Before the Poison fourteenth read in my 20 Books of Summer 2017 Challenge.