Sprightly look at the parochial mid-19th-century England that produced an infamous serial poisoner.
Guardian journalist Bates (The Photographer’s Boy, 2013, etc.) displays his fine understanding of Charles Dickens’ world in his portrayal of roguish, wayward Dr. William Palmer, whose mounting gambling debts caused great mental anguish and eventually prompted him to poison several people dearest to him. Since Bates begins with Palmer’s public hanging on June 14, 1856, having been handily convicted by jury of the poisoning death of his racing buddy John Parsons Cook, there is no peril of spoiling the ending, and therein lies the author’s challenge: how to maintain the tension and suspense of a murder tale. Bates succeeds with his lively characterizations and by sprinkling some hints of doubt on Palmer’s guilt: He never confessed, and evidence of strychnine was not discovered in the corpse (probably from lack of stringent or accurate analysis). Palmer makes for a curiously bland, hence chillingly ordinary and indifferent villain. A resident of his provincial hometown of Rugeley, he had been trained as a doctor, but his family inheritance allowed him to fall into rascally ways, from heavy drinking to seducing young ladies to betting on horse racing. At the time of Cook’s death, after a day and night of winning and drinking at the races, Palmer had two other recent questionable deaths to explain: his alcoholic brother, Walter, and Palmer’s wife, Ann. In both cases, just before their deaths, Palmer had taken out an insurance policy on their lives from the Prince of Wales Insurance Office. The author sifts all kinds of other circumstantial evidence—e.g., Palmer’s purchase of strychnine and his affair with and blackmail by “Jane.” Moreover, Bates considers the role of the rabid press, moneylenders, solicitors, judges and jury—with amusing illustrations.
A pleasantly instructive social history.