A poisoner, a dragon, a witch: books read

THE POISONER: The Life and Times of Victorian England’s Most Notorious Doctor by Stephen Bates recounts the story of the once infamous William Palmer, a Victorian medic put on trial for poisoning his best friend with strychnine and suspected of dozens more cases. Although Arthur Conan Doyle name-drops Palmer as a brilliant doctor and criminal in The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Bates shows that he was neither — more a desperate man, under water on his gambling debts, who resorted to poisoning a friend (and possibly a couple more people) to get money. Part of the public’s morbid fascination with the story was the use of strychnine, a new and hard to trace poison (up until the early 20th century, poison was close to undetectable), partly that Palmer was precisely the kind of dignified middle-class chap who ought to be above such behavior (as Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead discusses). Its cultural impact aside, like the shooting of Stanford White this former Crime of the Century isn’t that startling by today’s standards; Bates does a good job making it interesting even so, but the trial really bogs down in detail (as usual, I don’t blame him for getting into more detail than I was interested in).

I had the same reaction to the third volume of SAVAGE DRAGON ARCHIVES as I did to Savage Dragon: A New Beginning, that auteur Erik Larsen’s way too fond of recycling Jack Kirby to no purpose. This wastes a lot of space on New Gods/Thor-style deities engaging in Kirby-style conflicts and it all felt canned, with none of the passion Kirby showed for that kind of storytelling. On top of which, the sheer number of dramatic moments — Dragon’s dead! No, he’s alive in a new body! Now his Great Love is dead! Now someone else he loves is dead! OMG, he has a son! — and the lengthy exposition about past continuity made the whole thing feel like a parody, except parodies are actually funny (and if Larsen was trying for ironic meta-commentary, Astro City does that a lot better)

IT TAKES A WITCH: A Wishcraft Mystery by Heather Blake didn’t work for me at all, but I guess that’s not surprising: I’m not particularly a cozy mystery fan and I’m not a fan of complicated magic systems. And this book is full of multiple magical paths, each with its own elaborate rules (it feels very much like D&D specialists or subclasses); the protagonist is a “wishcrafter” who can grant wishes but only if they meet a variety of rules (no killing people, the wish must be sincere, you can’t grant another mage’s wishes — and you can’t tell anyone you’re a witch or you lose your powers). The first couple of chapters are very info-dumpy and the protagonist’s attraction to a studly cop felt canned (I will discuss this more in a later post). That said, this has become a successful cozy series so obviously a lot of people who are not me like it.

Finally, if anyone wants to click over to Atomic Junkshop, I reviewed the Joker’s 1975 solo series, recently TPB-ed as JOKER: Clown Prince of Crime.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Erik Larsen, bottom by Dick Giordano.

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