Thursday, September 4, 2014

Non-Fiction Review: The Poisoner by Stephen Bates

I need to read more history books for two reasons. First, I loved history long before I became obsessed with altering it. Second, to be a good alternate historian you need to know your history. Otherwise, how would you know how to craft a plausible timeline? So with that being said, let's talk about The Poisoner by Stephen Bates.

The Poisoner tells the story of William Palmer, a notorious murderer from 1850s Britain. Palmer was a doctor and gambler who was convicted of poisoning his friend John Cook. He is suspected, however, of murdering many others including his brother, mother-in-law, wife and many of his children, and collecting the life insurance after their deaths. Although he never confessed to the crime, Palmer was found guilty and executed.

Palmer's trial, however, is used by the author as a framing device for a better look at British culture of the decade. We see a growing middle class, a cultural obsession with horse racing (and the gambling that went with it) and an increasingly literate population, fueling the rise of newspapers. Palmer's murder trial became a sensation that reached the far corners of the globes, which is a surprising feat considering this was before the age of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle. The trial was followed by famous contemporaries such as Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria and references to it found their way into some of our great works of fiction.

Still if this book has one flaw it is probably the inordinate amount of time spent on British culture rather than the murder trial itself. Bates, a journalist, also diverts quite a bit to discuss the history of his profession, which is understandable, but can be a slog for a casual student of history. I think he may have been going for a style reminiscent of The Devil in the White City, which intertwined the tales of America's first serial killer and the 1893 World's Fair, but didn't quite pull it off. The Poisoner is a much denser tome than The Devil in the White City, which makes it harder to read unless you are the type who enjoys a lot of details in your history books.

So did Palmer do it? To Bates credit he presents a more balanced look at the infamous murderer's life. He points out how badly the trial was handled (even by that era's standards) and how the media's coverage of the trial unfairly prejudiced the entire nation against the accused. Still, the evidence does seem damning, but perhaps by today's standards Palmer could have at least avoided the hangman's noose.

The Poisoner is a great book for those looking for details, such as someone writing a steampunk story, on Britain in the early Victorian Era. Casual readers may be put off my the amount of details Bates packs in, but otherwise I found it to be an interesting chapter of British history and it has whetted my appetite for more history. Perhaps I will check out Truman by David McCullough next...

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update and a blogger on Amazing Stories. Check out his short fiction. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

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