Tag Archives: crime

Review: The Secret Art of Poisoning by Samantha Battams

When I first moved to Melbourne in the late 1990s, I lived in Richmond. At some point during my five years there, before I moved to the city, I learned about Martha Needle, the woman who lived on Bridge Road in the 1890s and poisoned her husband, three children and the brother of her fiance.

That’s as much as I knew, but that little conjured an image of a sly, vicious woman, disposing of unwanted encumbrances to get her own way and maybe a spot of insurance money.

As with all true stories, however, a lot more complexity is unravelled when you start to explore the details. Martha Needle’s guilt, on the face of it, is undoubted, and she was hanged for her crimes – but author Samantha Battams does an excellent job of uncovering the details of Martha’s tragic history and the circumstances of her crimes in The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner.

Martha Needle circa-1892. Photo: Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria

Battam goes into Martha Needle’s life in detail, beginning with the life of her mother, Mary Newland, who arrived in Adelaide in 1852, one of many women who came to be brides for the male-dominated colonial outpost.

The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner is a very thorough account of Martha’s harsh and difficult life, her precarious mental health and the deeds she committed and for which she was punished. Biased news coverage, many personal letters, the court proceedings (including the judge’s summing up) and other primary documents are quoted at length, and the final chapter brings together Battams’ observations on the social and historical influences that are so deeply embedded in the fate of Martha Needle and her victims.

On the technical side, a more stringent proofread before publication would have caught some of the more obvious typos and inconsistencies in punctuation which caught my eye and interrupted the reading flow, especially in the early chapters, but it’s a minor niggle in the presentation.

It’s a solid account, but if there’s a disappointment, it’s in an early promise not fulfilled. Battams reveals in the introduction how she stumbled across Martha Needle’s story by first encountering the story of how one Alexander Lee poisoned his wife and children in the 1920s. Lee was Martha Needle’s nephew.

The early suggestion of looking at how these two relatives and their fates were connected is only lightly touched on. I’d have enjoyed a bit more analysis, involving a more explicit look at their parallels, especially since the introduction specifically notes “I was also curious to know, did Alexander Lee know his Auntie Martha and grow up with stories of her infamous deeds?’ while the back blurb reads “What strange quirk of fate led these two relatives… to commit virtually the same crime?” Any answer is inferred rather than fully examined.

Although my curiosity is left largely unsatisfied, The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner is a thorough examination of a horrible crime, trial by media, the treatment of poverty, trauma and mental health by the 19th century justice system, and how the truth is always so much more complex than a sobriquet like “The Richmond Poisoner” can ever hope to show.

Buy The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, The Richmond Poisoner:

My Library: A is For Arsenic by Kathryn Harkup

Cheering, flaily-hands thanks to Sally Koetsveld, who gave me A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie as a gift two Christmases ago, before I went to Lorne for a break.

Kathryn Harkup is herself a chemist, as well as a writer and avid reader of Christie. This makes her the perfect choice to write about the kinds of poisons Christie used in her stories from the combined storytelling and scientific points of view.

Some of the books I get for research I dip in and out of. Some, like this one, I read cover to cover. A is for Arsenic was perfect reading for a beachside holiday. Well. If you’re me.

It’s not an A-Z, but 14 letters of the alphabet are covered, describing the poisons most commonly used by Christie in her stories. Agatha Christie’s background as a dispenser in 1917 and beyond meant she was very familiar with several common poisons and their effects.

Harkup examines the stories in which they’re used (usually mostly spoiler-free or with clear warning before the spoilering commences). She talks about each poisons origins, whether they have antidotes in both the historical and contemporary contexts, how right Christie got the symptoms in the story and exactly how these poisons work in the body to kill the victim. The latter is pretty technical, but also very clearly laid out. 

When you write both Victorian-era and contemporary crime and horror, a book like this is a superb helpmeet. With it, I can determine, for example,  how much either Dr Watson’s medical background, or Holmes’s as a chemist, will inform their responses and deductions, how easily a poison might be obtained, and how long it might take someone to expire (or be saved!).

A is for Arsenic is entertaining reading on its own, but as a tool for the writer, it promises to be both a useful reference work and a probable source of inspiration!

Cover Reveal: Duo Ex Machina Book 3 – Number One Fan

I’m delighted to reveal the cover for my third Duo Ex Machina novel, Number One Fan.

Duo Ex Machina Book 3: Number One Fan

It’s 2009 and Frank and Milo are in a new phase of their music career. They’re not where they thought they’d be: the violence they’ve witnessed and been subjected to has had consequences.

In spite of the traumas they’re dealing with, they are still making music. A new album has just been released and Frank is cutting his teeth as a producer for former pop princess, Gabriella Valli.

Then they start seeing strange messages from their Number One Fan. The trouble is that there are way too many candidates for the role.

The book is being serialised in fortnightly chapters on my Patreon. Once the final chapter is posted in April, the ebook will be prepared and published in partnership with Clan Destine Press.

I love Willsin’s work – he’s made a lot of my Clan Destine Press novel covers – and he’s created another fantastic cover for the Duo Ex Machina series. Thanks Willsin!

Willsin Rowe’s covers for books 1 and 2 of the Duo Ex Machina series.

Review: Painting in the Shadows by Katherine Kovacic

After her fabulous debut, The Portrait of Molly Dean, Katherine Kovacic brings us another Alex Clayton mystery set in Melbourne’s art world.

Set in 2000, a year after the events in The Portrait of Molly Dean, art dealer Alex Clayton and her best friend, art conservator John Porter, are visiting the Melbourne International Museum of Art (the NGV in fictional disguise) for a preview of their latest exhibition.

A bittersweet note is already struck as it’s clear Alex has a mysterious but clearly unhappy past with MIMA. Alex’s discomfort is soon shoved aside first by the collapse of a gallery worker which damages the key piece for display (the real 1864 Landseer painting, Man Proposes, God Disposes, which remains undamaged by fiction) and soon after, the death of the gallery’s senior conservator Meredith Buchanan in front of the very painting she’s meant to be repairing.

Alex and John immediately notice some oddities about Meredith’s death and some of the items found where she died. The police, unfamiliar with the nuances of the art world, aren’t receptive to their doubts, inclined to believe the death a suicide.

As naturally nosy people, Alex and John decide at once that they’ll poke around some of these discrepancies and oddities they’ve found to see if there’s anything in it, and to hand over any evidence of murder to the police.

We all know how that tends to work out in a mystery novel.

John is quickly employed to oversee the restoration of such a valuable painting, giving Alex reason to mooch around the place as well, so they have plenty of opportunity to ask questions, go into cupboards looking for skeletons and generally be amateur sleuths.

The real Landseer, Man Proposes, God Disposes, makes a fictional appearance. Image from Wikipedia.

Alex and John’s long friendship is shown to wonderful advantage as they collude in how to follow up their hunches and suspicions. Their whole relationship is given more texture by the personal problems they’re each facing. Alex’s art dealership isn’t providing financial stability, and hanging around the gallery is making her reflect on that lost chance at MIMA all those years ago when the unnamed scandal saw her kicked out of the gallery. John’s difficult marriage is an earthy personal counterpoint to Alex’s professional woes.

One of the great charms of Kovacic’s books is how she brings her personal knowledge and love of art history to her work. Alex is surely channelling Kovacic in her capacity to talk with engaging passion and clarity about what a picture or artist means to her without disappearing down a well of art wank. (That said, there’s a hilarious scene in which Alex and John deploy art wank strategically for investigative purposes which is a favourite!)

Painting in the Shadows is nicely paced, balanced well between the mystery, Alex and John’s personal and professional troubles, the many other relationships, and the world of art. It’s clever and engaging, the protagonists are likeable and the denouement neat.

After the resolution to the mystery, enough personal titbits remain to fill in the background for another book.

There is going to be another book, isn’t there Ms Kovacic?

Buy Painting in the Shadows (RRP$29.95)