Jonathan Moore’s The Poison Artist begins with a mystery: Why were Caleb and his girlfriend Bridget fighting? And so it is with this initial mystery we are launched into Caleb’s world, his past, and the series of mysteries he’s trying to solve.
The Poison Artist tells the story of Caleb Maddox, a San Francisco toxicology expert studying the effects of pain. The novel follows him as he winds his way through the city after his breakup with his girlfriend, Bridget. Along the way, he helps his friend Henry, a medical examiner, and they try to solve the mystery of serial murders with inconclusive postmortem examinations.
Caleb also meets a mysterious woman on the night of his breakup. Clad in a seductive black dress, she orders and drinks absinthe, and enchants Caleb in his forlorn, drunken haze. He vows he has to find her, and does everything so he can. Woven through the mysteries of the murders and who the dark, seductive Emmeline is, the reader must try to discern why Caleb and Bridget fought, and what shadows lurk in Caleb’s past.
Caleb attempts to solve all of the mysteries, all while worrying over whether he will get the money he needs to continue his toxicology research in his state-of-the-art laboratory, and trying to separate his feelings for Bridget from his feelings for the new and enchanting Emmeline.
Moore provides just enough information to be not enough, so that the reader keeps turning the pages. The beauty of it is that even when the resolution to each of the mysteries is revealed, there is enough ambiguity to allow for more mystery. Also, most of the action takes place at night and in the rain, lending both a noir-ish “dark and stormy night” feeling, as well serving to deepen the tension and mystery.
The Poison Artist is the first in a “neo-noir trilogy” from the author. The next—The Dark Room—will be out in 2017, and the third—The Night Market—out in 2018. Given the pace and how captivated I was throughout the novel, I have no doubt readers will be ready for the next installment in this series.
Dr. Caleb Maddox is a San Francisco toxicologist studying the chemical effects of pain. After a bruising breakup with his girlfriend, he is drinking whiskey at the speakeasy House of Shields when a hauntingly seductive woman appears by his side. Emmeline whispers to Caleb over absinthe, gets his blood on her fingers, and then brushes his ear with her lips as she says goodbye. He must find her.
As his search begins, Caleb becomes entangled in a serial murder investigation. The police are fishing men from the bay, and the postmortems are inconclusive. One man vanished from House of Shields the night Caleb met Emmeline. When questioned, Caleb can’t offer any information. But he is secretly helping the city’s medical examiner, an old friend, understand the chemical evidence on the victims’ remains. Caleb’s search for the killer soon entwines with his hunt for Emmeline, and the closer he gets to each, the more dangerous his world becomes.
The Poison Artist is a gripping literary thriller about obsession and damage, about a man unmoored by an unspeakable past and an irresistible woman who offers the ultimate escape.