A Dram of Poison by Charlotte Armstrong. Coward-McCann (1956), 256 pp.
Poetry instructor Kenneth Gibson is a quiet, sensitive fellow in his mid-fifties. He meets Rosemary James at the funeral for her father, whom she had cared for all her adult life. Now in her early thirties, she hasn’t the strength, skills, or determination to carry on by herself. Kenneth decides to intervene in an unobtrusive way. When Rosemary is about to lose her house, Kenneth proposes a platonic marriage. After the wedding they move to a cottage on the property chemist Paul Townsend, a handsome widower. Some of the psychological barriers between the newlyweds start to fall. Then a serious accident derails their relationship and brings Kenneth’s domineering and opinionated sister Ethel into their lives.
This is one of those novels that takes dramatic and unanticipated turns. The arrival of Ethel sets the story off in a new direction. But that’s nothing in comparison to the plot twist that occurs half-way through the book. Five new characters show up, complete with ideas about Kenneth, Rosemary and Ethel. The tone quickly lightens from ominous to comic. Readers may be left with the impression that the author doesn’t know her own mind - - that she started to write one kind of book, then changed her mind half way through. Which is not the usual formula for literary success. Even so, the book, with its portrait of halting romance and its assault on amateur psychologizing, has intrigued audiences over the years. It won the 1957 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, has been through several editions, and is still in print.