by Lydia Kang, MD
Three once-close friends are reunited at an engagement party that turns deadly when a guest falls down the stairs.
For Allene Cutter, the bride-to-be, it’s welcome excitement, especially with her friends Birdie Dreyer and Jasper Jones there to share it. It’s also a distraction from her upcoming marriage to Andrew Smythe Biddle, III, a handsome, wealthy and oh-so-appropriate banker’s son.
As soon as Jasper approaches the victim, the spiteful gossip Florence Waxworth, he knows her fall was no accident. He can smell the telltale scent of burnt almonds that comes with cyanide poisoning.
Allene’s father understands what scandal can do to a family. When the police arrive, he makes sure they have a little something to ensure they don’t call the event a suspicious death and bring in the medical examiner.
That leaves Allene, Birdie and Jasper to work out what did happen to Florence. But now – four years after they last saw each – do the three friends have the same goal?
The story takes place in a dark moment in a dark time. It’s August 1918. Most of the young men at the engagement party are at risk of being drafted into the trenches. No one knows that the Spanish influenza epidemic is coming and will bring death to their doorsteps. Both host and guests are wealthy, privileged and seemingly untouchable by life’s knocks and dings.
Life is much different for Birdie and Jasper than for Allene. Birdie, her younger sister and her mother Hazel are barely staying alive since Allene’s mother fired Hazel, her “lady’s companion.” Mrs. Cutter claimed that Hazel gave her tuberculosis and retired to a health spa in Saratoga. Hazel’s increasingly loose, ill-fitting clothes led to rumors of an affair with Mr. Cutter that left her in the family way.
Jasper became unwelcome when his parents suffered a financial reversal and took cyanide to escape the shame. He moved in with an alcoholic uncle in the Bowery. He works every hour he can to earn money to go to medical school. His job as a janitor at Bellevue Hospital allows him to secretly borrow medical books from the pathology department.
There is a delicious ambiguity in the characters, which takes this book beyond the standard historical mystery. Allene, Birdie and Jasper were tight friends growing up. When Mr. Cutter banished Birdie and Jasper from Allene’s life, they started new lives Allene can’t even begin to imagine. There’s still friendship, but for Birdie and Jasper there’s also resentment. Each has plans to get what they need from Allene.
Allene is so sheltered by privilege she is superficial, inconsiderate and blind to what is happening around her. Reconnecting with her friends and their efforts to figure out who killed Florence introduces Allene to new worlds. When first Hazel Dreyer and then Jasper’s Uncle Fred die in apparent accidents, Allene realizes that Hazel was “entertaining gentlemen” to help support the family. She’s introduced to four-year-old Holly, whom Birdie says is her sister. She gets a chance to see Birdie at work painting radium-based chemicals to make clock faces glow in the dark — a job that is slowly poisoning her.
She goes with Jasper to the city morgue and meets Dr. Norris and Dr. Gettler, pioneers in forensic medicine and warriors against the corruption of Tammany Hall.
Kang does a wonderful job of blending history with character and plot in a seamless, credible way. The depth of the characters is uneven; for example, neither Mr. nor Mrs. Cutter have first names. The end seems a little rushed and flat. Even so, it’s a book that grabs you and holds you to the end.
I’d love to see a series coming out of these characters.
The Author: Lydia Kang, MD
An internist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Lydia Kang is also the author of young adult fiction, poetry and narrative nonfiction.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Columbia University and a medical degree from the New York University School of Medicine.
During her medical training she spent time at Bellevue Hospital and lived in a dorm across the street from the pathology building, which is one of the settings for A Beautiful Poison.