The cover of my 1964 Crest Books edition of A Dram of Poison champions the book as having won the Mystery Writers of America award for Best Mystery Novel of the Year. If that’s the case, then 1956 must have been a really lean year for American mysteries, because A Dram of Poison simply isn’t a mystery novel. The first half does play out as if Charlotte Armstrong is treading down the inverted mystery path, but this isn’t even that.
Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t read this. Charlotte Armstrong somehow manages to pull off the miracle of creating an engrossing read for mystery fans, despite not featuring a mystery. I ate up most every minute of it, and I imagine this might resonate with someone who enjoys Craig Rice novels – at least based on the Rice reviews that I’ve read.
Mr Gibson – I don’t recall ever learning his first name – is an aging man with a heart of gold. When he spots the bereaved daughter of a colleague at a funeral, he can’t help but try to heal the wounded dove. This turns into a bit of a benign obsession, with Mr Gibson doing everything in his power to help the young woman overcome her depression.
Where the story goes from there, unfortunately, is best left for you to experience. I realize I’m not giving you much to go on, and I myself would probably move right along. The first half reads heavily like we’re going to get an inverted mystery, with the question of which character is going to resort to murder, as well as the question of who will end up the victim. And then we get something very different indeed. The point at which the plot pivots – and it pivots hard – is one of those great laugh out loud moments I rarely get when reading.
From there on, the story becomes a mad caper that picks up characters and plot lines like some out of control snowball tumbling down a mountain. You’ll likely spot the obvious conclusion that things seemingly must arrive at, but man, the fun of getting there… It helps that Armstrong creates some incredibly likable characters, but it’s also her masterful stretching of plot that just as well could have been a short story.
I picked up A Dram of Poison as part of a lot of Armstrong books, the rest being 1940s Pocket Books editions with some really nice cover art. Next on my list is likely The Unsuspected, based on some positive comments I saw recently.