The Poisoner (a review)

bates_poisonerWriter Charles Dickens thought William Palmer “the greatest villain”; Queen Victoria followed the case (evidenced by her journals). Unlike “Jack the Ripper” or Dr. Crippen, Palmer’s name has faded. Author Stephen Bates rectified that with this true-crime biography.

Was Palmer (“the Rugeley Poisoner”) unjustly accused of the poisoning-murder of his friend, John Cook? Was he guilty of as many poisonings as he was suspected of? (A dozen or so.)

Seen in an advance reading copy, one early image spoke a thousand words, as the face of a presumed-killer stares out from page in the one photograph purporting to be Palmer. Bates takes a moment, at the end of the book to say a few words about this photograph and its provenance.

Bates begins (as many biographers do) at the end: the day of Palmer’s execution. In fleshing out Cook’s death and Palmer’s trial, the journalistic background of author Stephen Bates is evident. The researched material of the case, from genuine newspaper articles and reports of autopsy mishandlings, is allowed to stand center-stage. And therein lies the book’s slight lack of emotional drama – for, unlike the sensationalism of the 19th century journalist, Bates is dispassionate and all-informing (good traits for a 21st century journalist) rather than gripping and the smallest bit one-sided (better for a biographer or historian).

Having never heard of Palmer nor his crimes, the suspense of the story felt somewhat diluted by tackling the Palmer Poisonings as a newspaper post-mortem. Yet, ultimately, the book does pose the eternal question: Was the executed man actually GUILTY of the one crime he was charged with?

An absorbing section came during discussion of the deaths of Palmer’s immediate family, when contemplation that Palmer may have gotten rid of his wife and children made this reader care about the dilemma, danger, and death of Mrs Palmer. The textbook details surrounding Cook’s death detached, rather than enhanced, any emotive viewpoint. The murder Palmer stood accused of – in a case so-circumstantial that except for a series of happenings the body might never have been placed at Palmer’s doorstep – failed to draw the same depth of effect as the mysterious death of Mrs. Palmer. Heavy reliance on verbatim newspaper reports, rather than the writer’s deductions (for instance, in his informative consideration of the so-called Jane Letters), distanced and disengaged this reader just enough that a wish for a different take on the whole was inevitable. Knowing the outcome from the onset (a cursory look on the internet would have supplied the same information; the denouement never was is question), made it imperative for Bates to persuade through skillful narrative writing rather than aloof journalism.

If a “side” had been chosen – either from the point of view of the victim(s); the killer; the court or insurance company; even the author’s own “investigation” – the result could have been a riveting story, thrillingly told. It’s hard to fault a journalist for his background, with its inherent precept of “unbiased” news reporting. The assessment that needed to take place occurs late in the book; it is a valuable summation to this long-ago case.

Recommended to readers wishing to get a flavor of the seedier side of Victorian life. You won’t reach into the mind of a killer, nor balance on the edge of life and death with the victims, but Stephan Bates has provided a readable account of a once-notorious case, in all its grim, bungled, biased, and sensationalized reality.

3 inkwells (out of 5)