The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

A Troublesome Servant and Fearful Master (Review: The Poisoned House by Michael Ford)

The Poisoned House
Michael Ford
Bloomsbury August 2010

The year is 1856, and orphan Abigail Tamper lives below stairs in Greave Hall, a crumbling manor house in London. Lord Greave is plagued by madness, and with his son Samuel away fighting in the Crimea, the running of Greave Hall is left to Mrs Cotton, the tyrannical housekeeper. The only solace for the beleaguered staff is to frighten Mrs Cotton by pretending the house is haunted.
So when a real ghost makes an appearance - that of her beloved mother - no one is more surprised than Abi. But the spirit has a revelation that threatens to destroy Abi’s already fragile existence: she was murdered, and by someone under their very own roof. With Samuel returned to England badly wounded, it’s up to Abi to nurse him back to health, while trying to discover the identity of the killer in their midst. As the chilling truth dawns, Abi’s world is turned upside down.
(Blurb courtesy of Goodreads)

I had high hopes for this title – the press release described it as a mix between Wilkie Collins and The Woman In Black. The Moonstone by Collins is one of my all time favourite books and The Woman In Black scares me to sobs so it sounded pretty much like my perfect book. Frankly, I think they may have been aiming a little high with these acclamations. I expected intrigue and scares but what I found was an enjoyable enough, slightly spooky story with an interesting (if unoriginal) take on the upstairs downstairs nature of British servitude.

Character-wise, our main protagonist is Abi. A maid in the sparsely populated Greave Hall, Abi is mourning the loss of her mother a year previously, concerned for her employer (an elderly man on the brink of dementia) and anticipating eagerly the return of his son Samuel who has been in the Crimean war. She also lives in constant fear of housekeeper Mrs. Cotton – a woman who rules the servants with cruelty and lives more like the lady of the house than an employee. The remaining cast is made up of another maid, a footman, a cook and a butler. Abi is a believable character with a clear voice and quite a backbone, considering her circumstances. As she starts to notice strange and then stranger goings on around the house she remains strong through her fear and has an innate curiosity that drives her to investigate matters herself. As son of the master, Samuel is also pretty interesting – his return from war prompts a terribly upsetting scene, which is handled skillfully and without morbidity by the author.  For me, however, the standout character of The Poisoned House was Mrs. Cotton. In the 1800's the housekeeper held the same position below stairs as the master of the house did upstairs, and Mrs. Cotton plays this to her advantage at every opportunity. She is truly a terrifying creature – more frightening, in fact, that any of the ghostly goings on within Greave Hall reminding the reader that often it is people, not creatures of shadows, in whom the greatest threats lie.

Overall, I found the storyline to be compelling as both a study of an 1800's household and as a mystery. I did not, however, find that it worked as a ghost story – I felt that the book would have worked equally well without the slightly paranormal aspects. The climax of the tale is gripping and my only real criticism is that I felt that the storyline as regards Abi and nemesis Mrs. Cotton seemed slightly unresolved – I'd have liked some sort of show down between the two as I felt that the novel built towards that but then backed away from their relationship towards the end. While The Poisoned House by no means reaches the dizzy heights of Wilkie Collins, nor the chills of Susan Hill it is certainly an excellent introduction to the style of writing and the period slant of both The Moonstone and The Woman In Black. For readers who have read neither then I would suggest investing in The Poisoned House at the same time as one of these classic tales, then curling up on a dark, stormy night (preferably in front of a roaring fire) and slipping back in time to an altogether spookier, more mysterious time.

Thank you to Bloomsbury for sending me this title to review.


Anonymous said…
Really good, honest review!

The Woman In Black is amazing, totally agree with you there. Have you seen it performed, or read the book, or both?

Rachel Star
Splendibird said…
Read the book and the script for the play but chickened out of the opportunity to see it - too scary for me...
back to top