Title: The Poisoner’s Ring
Series: A Rip Through Time
Author: Kelley Armstrong
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication date: May 23, 2022
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/mystery
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley
Edinburgh, 1869: Modern-day homicide detective Mallory Atkinson is adjusting to her new life in Victorian Scotland. Her employers know she’s not housemaid Catriona Mitchell―even though Mallory is in Catriona’s body―and Mallory is now officially an undertaker’s assistant. Dr. Duncan Gray moonlights as a medical examiner, and their latest case hits close to home. Men are dropping dead from a powerful poison, and all signs point to the grieving widows… the latest of which is Gray’s oldest sister.
Poison is said to be a woman’s weapon, though Mallory has to wonder if it’s as simple as that. But she must tread carefully. Every move the household makes is being watched, and who knows where the investigation will lead.
The Poisoner’s Ring is the 2nd book in Kelley Armstrong’s A Rip Through Time series, and while there’s a murder-mystery plot that’s complicated and compelling, I think a reader would be completely lost if they try to start here without reading the first book.
But the first book was great, so why not start at the beginning???
To recap as simply as possible, the plotof A Rip Through Time has to do with a modern-day detective who gets pulled through a rip in time while visiting Edinburgh and ends up in the 19th century. Mallory’s inner self now inhabits the 19-year-old body of housemaid Catriona… and she presumes that Catriona must be stuck inside Mallory’s body in the 21st century. (There’s a lot more to it, so check out my review for more details).
Here in book #2, The Poisoner’s Ring, about a month has passed since the events of the last book. Mallory hasn’t figured out how to get back to her own time, so she’s still stuck in a strange time and a strange body. Fortunately, Catriona’s employer, Dr. Duncan Gray and his widowed sister Isla know the truth about Mallory, and accept her. Even better, they’re both scientists, and they’re fascinated by what Mallory can teach them about advances in forensics and chemistry.
It’s an odd and consistently entertaining juxtaposition. Mallory finds herself about 10 years younger than her true age, in a much more delicate body, stuck wearing petticoats and corsets, yet in full possession of her true skills and knowledge. She has to learn to defend herself in this weaker, daintier body, and must learn to curb her natural instincts in order to fit in, at least on a surface level, in this Victorian setting. Chasing a perp down the streets just isn’t ladylike and is sure to attract unwanted attention… not to mention just how challenging she finds running and fighting in a corset.
The plot of The Poisoner’s Ring centers around a series of deaths that appear to be murder by poison. There are rumors of a poisoner’s ring — basically, an urban myth about unhappy wives referring one another to a source for illegal poison which they then use to kill their husbands. Since none of the victims appear to be connected, it’s a clever scheme… but Mallory isn’t buying it. As she, Duncan, and Isla dig deeper, they discover all sorts of secrets and misdeeds, but unfortunately, Duncan and Isla’s oldest sister ends up implicated as well. As the saying goes… now it’s personal.
This book is a delight, as is the first in the series. There’s something so completely delicious about having this 21st century detective mouthing off to her confidantes, with all of her modern-day attitude and know-how coming out of the mouth of a delicate young (and formerly illiterate and untrustworthy) housemaid.
The murder plot itself is complicated, maybe more so than really suits my reading tastes, but that’s more a matter of my preferred types of fiction than a knock against this book. After a certain point, I stopped trying very hard to keep all the various suspects and conspirators straight, and just enjoyed it for the sake of seeing Mallory in action, as well as the other main characters, who are also quite interesting and fun to spend time with.
I love Mallory’s dialogue and her inner thoughts — so amazingly out of place for where she finds herself. Her wry observations never fail to amuse:
The public house is, like most things in Victorian Edinburgh, both what I expect and not what I expect. My visual renderings of scenes like this all come from Hollywood, where’ I’m going to guess that — unless it’s a mega-budget movie — there’s a standard-issue “Victorian pub” on a soundstage somewhere.
… [T]here’s the boy just ahead of us, who has coming running from a shop a few blocks over, where he is employed to read the paper to the workers. They chip in to buy a newspaper and pay him a small wage to sit at a table and read aloud while they work. The Victorian version of a radio newscast… complete with child labor.
(I won’t give the context for this one, since it’s a bit of a plot spoiler, but I love the idea:)
It’s the Victorian equivalent of a deepfake.
The Poisoner’s Ring is a terrific 2nd book that builds on the promise of the 1st. Our main character continues to be a fish-out-of-water, surviving and thriving on her wits and 21st century know-how, stuck where she doesn’t want to be — but while stuck, making a life for herself. Because Mallory’s circumstances remain unresolved as of the end of this book, I can only assume that there will be more to come in this series, and I am here for it!
Highly recommended, and as I keep saying — starting with book #1 is a must!