A Dram of Poison (1956) by Charlotte Armstrong

A Dram of Poison by Charlotte Armstrong 1956

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“Death and destruction,” murmured Mr. Gibson, “in small packages.”

A man bent on suicide smuggles poison out of his neighbor’s lab, only to absent-mindedly misplace it. Now a deadly poison is lost in the city—odorless, tasteless, and disguised as an innocent bottle of olive oil. To find the missing bottle, Kenneth Gibson must expose his most shameful secrets to his friends and family, but as the hunt continues, a number of hidden truths emerge. Can this ragtag group retrieve the poison before it’s too late?

A murder mystery didn’t seem like appropriate reading for Easter, so I turned to an old favorite. A Dram of Poison generates enormous suspense from a very small crime, the theft of the poison. The tension comes from Mr. Gibson’s efforts to locate the bottle and prevent an accidental murder. This seemingly hopeless quest takes him, his wife, and some surprising new friends, to places the reader could never have predicted.

A Dram of Poison by Charlotte Armstrong 1956It all begins when the source of Mr. Gibson’s greatest happiness, his late-in-life marriage, becomes his biggest torment. He has entered into a marriage of convenience with Rosemary, a younger woman beaten down by years of caring for her senile father. They are unexpectedly happy together and this shy professor finds himself falling in love for the first time. Before he can confess his love, however, the Gibsons are injured in an accident and his cynical sister Ethel comes to help out.

Ethel is the serpent in their Eden, a well-meaning, busybody serpent who proves impossible to dislodge. Recovering from his injuries, Mr. Gibson feels “lame. Old. Done for.” Rosemary, by contrast, is blooming. She’s even struck up a friendship with their neighbor Paul Townsend, a wealthy, handsome widower. Mr. Gibson comes to believe that he is holding his wife back, that she is now tied as firmly to an older, invalid husband as she was to her father. There seems to be only one solution.

Armstrong does not stint on the backstory of this couple. In fact, it goes on for the entire first half of the book. By the time the search for the poison begins, the reader does feel affection for Mr. Gibson and Rosemary, but this part of the story drags a bit and could have been condensed.

A Dram of Poison by Charlotte Armstrong 1956The search is the payoff for the reader’s personal investment in the characters. Without this level of understanding, it would still be suspenseful, but would not have the same emotional resonance. Rosemary must prod Mr. Gibson into the hunt; frightened and humiliated, he prefers to leave it to the police. Once out in the world, however, he and Rosemary are exposed to a variety of people and viewpoints which help them figure out what they really want in life—assuming Mr. Gibson hasn’t already poisoned someone. (The reader, like Paul, may wonder, “Who’s going to take and eat food that he just found?” As the story reveals, however, there are all kinds of people in the world.)

This group of people, the way they talked to him, the way they argued with him, contradicted him, tried to buck him up, like him and worried for him, and fought with him against fate, and gave him their own faiths…this touched him and made music in his heart. He thought no man had ever had so delightful an experience as he had had this day of his suicide.

The whole enterprise is surprisingly wholesome and good-natured, a zany screwball comedy despite the enormously high stakes. The philosophizing is too overt at times, and everyone scapegoats Ethel’s amateur psychoanalysis without taking too much trouble to understand her feelings. I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for her. But Ethel is the devil on the Gibsons’ shoulders, pouring poison into their ears every day—poison they choose to swallow. She believes her brother and his wife, in the ivory tower of academia, don’t understand the ugliness of the real world, where everyone is out for themselves.

“You have always sidestepped the nasty truths of this earth, brother dear. More power to you […] Your world of poetry and quixotic goodness and faith and all the rest is a pretty darned nice place…”

“And your world?” he demanded. “I imagine you call it the real world,” he said, goaded to some anger.

Ethel responded to the anger. “Mine?” She looked him in the eye. “It happens to be full of knives-in-the-back and all kinds of human meannesses. It cannot help but be. Men are animals, whether you like it or not.”

Mr. Gibson discovers that neither his cloistered approach nor Ethel’s tough one is entirely correct.

A Dram of Poison is one of the nicest crime novels ever, even within Charlotte Armstrong’s notably optimistic oeuvre. That doesn’t mean it’s toothless, however; a great deal of damage can be done with the best intentions. Armstrong is always more interested in the causes and consequences of crime than in the mechanics of carrying it out. While the hunt for the missing poison is a nerve-wracking race against time, there is equal focus is on the emotional growth of the characters and the endless battle between hope and cynicism.

Second Opinions

Crossexamining Crime

On the whole I thought this a very good read, with the characterisation unsurprisingly being a major strength of it, and it is a definite must for those who like unexpected crime novels, as this is one is fairly unconventional crime, with the real mystery becoming what is actually going to happen and how are things going to pan out.

The Rap Sheet

A Dram of Poison is surprising from start to finish, defying genre expectations at every turn. The lively tone is laced with pathos, a poignant sympathy for the poetry professor—also a veteran of two wars—who is better at making sacrifices than making himself happy. The central mystery might not be who has the poison, but rather something more philosophical.

 Availability

 A Dram of Poison is available from the Mysterious Press, in ebook format in the US, and in paperback and ebook formats in the UK.


3 thoughts on “A Dram of Poison (1956) by Charlotte Armstrong

  1. So deserving of its Edgar award and one of the noteworthy crime fiction books that brought notice to a genre often maligned as being the slumming ground of readers uninterested in literature and seeking only light escapism. This book I think is fraught with tension and the possibility of real calamity. I don’t remember any of the light heartedness (the analogy to a screwball comedy threw me) of that you mention – “endless battle between hope and cynicism.” Maybe I need to re-read this one. It’s certainly one of my all-time favorites and now that I’m four decades older than when I first read it I’m sure I’d see all sorts of newness in the story and characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The suspense is amazing here, as the poison could be literally ANYWHERE and the reader has no idea what is coming next at any point. I was surprised by how light-hearted most of the second half is, however. Several of the characters the Gibsons run into are pure comic relief (though Armstrong always respects her characters enough to make them human and not ridiculous, even the minor ones). The screwball comparison comes from the ever-faster pace of the poison hunt, which sees more and more unusual characters cramming themselves into the same car, falling in love and trading humorous observations. These actually communicate some serious thoughts about people’s responsibilities to themselves and each other, but they are phrased in a very light tone.

      The story is very explicitly about the conflict between Ethel’s atomic-age pessimism, which sounds more realistic and adult, versus the reality that Mr. Gibson actually experiences, which is that the world is full of people who, while pretty mixed-up themselves, are happy to help someone in need. The others are trying to convince him that life is worth living, which causes him to be “born again” (exact quote). He and Rosemary must learn to have “faith” in themselves and their choices. That’s not to say there isn’t darkness in the book (I was especially blindsided by the masterful suspense of the last chapter). The overall theme, however, is hopeful.

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