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A Beautiful Poison Paperback – August 1, 2017
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“Full of suspense…Jaw-dropping.” —First for Women
“With an erudite cast and mystery as morbid as 1918 New York in the grip of plague, A Beautiful Poison is as intoxicating as its title. Smart, compelling, and deliciously addicting. Kang is a deadly wit.” —Tosca Lee, New York Times bestselling author of The Progeny and Firstborn
“An absolute gem for murder mystery fans, with a perfect period feel and fascinating forensic detail.” —Lindsay Jayne Ashford, author of The Color of Secrets and The Woman on the Orient Express
“An intriguing blend of history and suspense, A Beautiful Poison kept me guessing until the very end. Lydia Kang masterfully conjures up the world of early twentieth-century New York, and her characters are appealingly complex, making for plenty of satisfying plot twists. Ultimately, this is far more than a murder mystery: it’s a story about friendship, and the intertwined fates of Allene, Jasper, and Birdie will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.” —Elizabeth Blackwell, author of In the Shadow of Lakecrest
“The perfect blend of mystery, history, and science, Lydia Kang’s A Beautiful Poison is an entertaining read from beginning to end. A classic whodunnit with a touch of dark humor, Kang’s first adult novel will hopefully not be her last.” —Jennifer Hillier, author of Creep and The Butcher
About the Author
Lydia Kang is a physician and author of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. She was born in Baltimore, Maryland and graduated from Columbia University and New York University School of Medicine. She completed her residency and chief residency at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and currently lives in the midwest, where she continues to practice internal medicine.
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Ms. Kang is a physician who studied and trained in New York City and she sets her story there in 1918 when two historical events were occurring simultaneously: WWI, the so-called Great War "to end all wars", and the terrifying Spanish Influenza outbreak in NYC and other American cities and towns, both of which caused deaths numbering in the thousands. Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, the oldest public hospital in the US and still one of its greatest, is also a "character" at a time before it became known (inaccurately) only as a place of treatment for the mentally ill.
Through her meticulous descriptions of people, houses, clothes, attitudes, manners and events and her skillful dialog the author brings to life people and a time almost exactly 100 years ago. I quickly felt as if I were there, completely immersed in that world. Each character is richly drawn and real. She shows the worlds and lives of the rich, the formerly rich, as well as those of the poor. We also learn how the impending draft of young men of all stations into the War hung like a pall over their heads. Here at home forensic medicine was in its infancy and physicians were helpless against the rapidly-spreading and relentless influenza outbreak. What few drugs they had at their disposal at the time couldn't arrest the disease and it killed so very fast - strangely, mainly the young more than the old. (In a personal note an ancestor of mine, my late father's brother, died from the flu in 1918 as a young boy.) In the field of medicine, 100 years ago might as well have been the Dark Ages in comparison to today. Indeed, the Spanish Influenza pandemic is reminiscent of the Black Plague that destroyed 2/3 of the population of Europe hundreds of years ago.
This is however not just a historical but first and foremost a mystery novel. There are several murders of persons close to some young friends, mainly 18 year-olds, and they are driven to try to solve them partly through forensic investigation and partly through deduction, but this is no Nancy Drew "let's go solve a mystery" book. These are intelligent young men and women from "both sides of the tracks". In fact one female and one male are budding scientist/physicians and in the case of the young woman she is in a world where women didn't yet have the vote, lived lives controlled by males and had to fight to have a career. Their investigation is made up as they go along but is none the less fascinating because although they are amateurs two of them posses a relevant knowledge of chemistry - the deaths were caused by poisoning - and one has access to the morgue, plus they have a personal stake in solving these crimes. I suspect very few readers will deduce the murderer and their motive before the stunning end. I certainly didn't!
Most of all I was impressed with Ms. Kang's simple and economical yet beautiful, smooth and evocative prose. There were a number of sentences so lyrically expressed and often containing a profound idea that I had to stop and reread them for their sheer beauty of expression. Her dialog is natural and suited to the era. Her exposition is seamless and naturally conveyed.
I want to read more novels by this author and I hope that she will pick up the threads at the end of the story and write a sequel. As a native New Yorker I love historical novels set in earlier NYC and as a female I want to read about the strong women who went before me and sowed the seeds that flowered into a garden where I as a female was able to enjoy a free and productive life of my choice without having to fight quite as hard as they did against society's stifling conventions to accomplish what I wanted as a person and as a woman.
I cannot recommend this book more highly to readers with any of the varying interests I have stated above.
There is an odd trio of friends trying to solve some suspicious deaths of friends and relatives, this is all occurring during the great flu epidemic. The book reflects the time period, where woman were discouraged from scientific pursuits - but Allene forges ahead. The ending was quite surprising. Overall, a very satisfying read.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
As far as the history, the medical aspects were of interest especially pertaining to the development of procedures we now consider completely standard, but there are better writers doing novels set in similar time periods which give just as much atmosphere and have characters you want to visit again and again.
I did finish the book but I also spent a bit of time wondering if I would do so - it was 50/50.