Edinburgh author's cross-dressing detective knows her poisons

'In the poison garden, death is the only fruit.' I now know more about poison plants than I could ever have imagined I would thanks to historical crime writer ES Thomson, whose latest novel, Nightshade, was released this week.

Friday, 16th April 2021, 4:30 pm
Author ES Thomson
Author ES Thomson

Nightshade is the fifth book in Thomson's Jem Flockhart series and follows the novels Beloved Poison, Dark Asylum, The Blood and Surgeon's Hall, all of which chart the investigations of the cross-dressing female apothecary and her friend and side-kick, architect Will Quarterman.

Set in Victorian London, a time when the patriarchy held sway, Flockhart lives her life as a male in order to carry on the family business from its premises in Fishbait Lane, located in one of the capital’s seedier areas. All of which allows Thomson to breathe life into a wonderful menagerie of characters and grotesque creations.

The latest investigation for the unlikely detectives is set in 1851. Restless and bored after a long hot summer, poison expert Flockhart decides to redesign her physic garden. But plans are thrown into confusion when a man's skeleton is unearthed from beneath, the deadly nightshade, a smaller, child-like skeleton curled at its feet.

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The body bears evidence of knife wounds to its ribs and arms, and is accompanied by a collection of macabre objects: a brass bowl, a curious coin-like token, a set of tiny ivory skulls.

The police claim the victim is too long buried for answers to be found, but for Flockhart, a corpse in her own garden is something that can not be ignored. The plans to the garden, laid out some 40 years earlier, reveal a list of five names.

When Flockhart and Quartermain start asking questions, the murders begin. Each victim has a past connection with the physic garden; each corpse is found with its jaw broken wide and its mouth stuffed with deadly nightshade. As they move closer to discovering the truth Flockhart and Quartermain encounter a dark world of addiction, madness, power and death that strikes at the very heart of Flockhart's own history. This time, the poison is personal...

Nightshade is really two tales in one as the action flashbacks between the present, well, 1851, and things that happened a generation earlier courtesy of a series of diary entries. Along the way, those stories are interspersed with notes from a botany journal - hence the reason I now know which plants are poisonous and which of their bits are the most deadly.

Weaving the three threads together Thomson brings much colour and atmosphere to the page as she beautifully crafts a London as tangible as it is lost in the mists of time.

Flockhart has been gathering waifs and strays throughout the series and the Fishbait Lane apothecary is now home to a fine yet eclectic collection of characters; apprentices Gabriel and Jenny and the aging 'slattern' Mrs Speedicut. Thomson imbues them all with an easy chemistry, as she does her deliciously grotesque brothel madams, the perfectly named Mrs Lovibond and Mrs Roseplucker. Another gripping page-turner, add Nightshade to your reading list now.

Nightshade, by ES Thomson, is published in hardback by Constable

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