The Blackheath Poisonings

Julian Symons, 1978

I’ll get onto the TV miniseries of this another day – I’ve only managed one episode so far; the rest of it sits forlornly on top of the DVD player waiting its turn for a digital-spin.

What that one episode did though, was kick-start my reading of the book, which I’d bought from Amazon marketplace for 49p (it’s been deleted for years) and found virtually impenetrable on first perusal.

It’s an Edwardian murder-mystery -written in the 1970s. I should have seen a clue in that, but I didn’t. Set in two fictitious houses on Blackheath, it follows the fortunes (and weedkiller-fuelled misfortunes) of a sprawling family that would today be labelled ‘disfunctional.’ Their fragile veneer of respectability is shattered when the first of a series of mysterious deaths is revealed as not necessarily having been from natural causes. As the young, politicised son of the family starts to suspect an arsenic-fest, he turns over a veritable “vipers’ nest of secret vice” (not my words – it’s from the jacket-blurb.)

The Seventies enjoyed a bit of an Edwardian revival. The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady sold by the wheelbarrow-load and Upstairs Downstairs was a national phenomenon (I’m guessing the televisation of The Blackheath Poisonings was a direct result of UD‘s success.) Holly Hobbie was a major fashion statement (thankfully neglected in the recent 70s revival) and Laura Ashley was at her peak. So I can understand why Julian Symons thought this was a good idea. That he turned that cosy, lacy-dress, formal-attire, old-colonial ‘Teatime of the Empire’ image on its beam-end is to his credit.

And, once you get past the first few chapters, it does rattle along. Symons was clearly an expert plotter, skilled at drawing character-sketches with few words and deft at seeding earlier chapters with important information the unsuspecting reader will need later to have any kind of chance of guessing whodunnit. Which is why I was puzzled at those first few chapters – an information-dump of backstory which today would be a little more subtley included in the main body of the work.

I stalled at those chapters, The Blackheath Posonings gathering dust at my bedside for several weeks as other stuff piled up around it. It was only when the DVD arrived (a typically pompous American syndication entitled Masterpiece Theater Presents… somewhat over-egging a rather thin pudding on first-viewing at least) that I thought I’d better give it another go.

The second time, having already ploughed through the backstory, it was all much easier. The Blackheath Posionings is not un-put-downable, but it is diverting and, unless you know the story before you start, I’ll eat my spectral hat if you guess the culprit before the bitter end, though it will help if you start thinking with a 1970s mind rather than an Edwardian one.

In fact, it was getting perilously near to that end when I started to worry that it was going to be one of those infuriating mysteries where you’re never told what went on or you’re told some character who’s never appeared before did it (yes Edgar-sodding-Allen-sodding-Poe, I mean you…) The eye-popping truth finally revealed in the very last pages is strangely satisfying, perhaps because it was, just about, hinted at earlier on, even if I didn’t spot it.

So is it any good? Well, the references to Greenwich and Blackheath are always enjoyable, as is the story itself, if a little dated, but unless you see it in Halcyon Books for 49p I wouldn’t suggest going out of your way to track it down. It is of its time. There are better mysteries written about this area.

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