The Poison Artist
Jonathan Moore
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Buy *The Poison Artist* by Jonathan Mooreonline

The Poison Artist
Jonathan Moore
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
288 pages
January 2016
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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This novel is a dark study of one man’s journey, overcoming childhood adversity to create a successful career in contemporary San Francisco, a city of particular beauty and a rich history. Like a jewel set in the northern coast of California, San Francisco is both gothic and modern, a repository of architecture and sophisticated technology, dense fog frequently shrouding the streets and obscuring the landscape.

Caleb Maddox, engaged in toxicology research at UCSF Medical Center, never speaks of his past, a history known well only by his childhood friend, Henry Newcomb, the Medical Examiner for the city. While Maddox toils over a funded project on deadline in his lab, Henry is busy autopsying a growing number of unidentified men’s bodies in the morgue. Newcomb is increasingly suspicious that the deaths are connected, a theory he eventually shares with Caleb. The friends have collaborated before, though the toxicologist is recently caught up in a domestic drama with Bridget, his live-in girlfriend. After an explosive argument, Bridget walks out, leaving Caleb meticulously picking shards from a glass tumbler from his face.

Caleb begins a tumultuous week of binge-drinking, stopping at a bar that very night called The House of Shields. Sipping his drink at the bar, his attention is drawn by a beautiful young woman who appears briefly, then leaves. Raven-haired, dark-eyed and luminously pale-skinned, the shimmering beauty immediately captures his imagination: “She was like a dark star…She eclipsed everything that guided him, but he couldn’t see her.” Caleb becomes obsessed with the elusive stranger, who seems to have stepped from the past to occupy his imagination. Determined to find her, he cycles through the following days in a delirious fugue, barely present at work, his thoughts only on finding the woman as he wanders the streets night after night. When Henry finally share his fears that a serial killer is at large in the city, Caleb sees the mystery as an opportunity to restore a margin of sanity to his life. The friends confer after hours, establishing potential links in the deaths as detectives begin to question the spate of bodies as well.

Moore’s evocative prose infuses this unusual tale with smoldering noir elegance, a veneer of violence shifting beneath the surface, his description of the exotic stranger and the tormented Caleb poignant and eerily romantic when the pair finally engages. They drink absinthe together (Berthe de Joux), enjoying its arcane rituals, spend hours in shadowy, empty bars. Caleb loses all interest in repairing his relationship or responsibilities at the lab, alive only with Emmeline in a world within a world. Caleb’s accomplishments, his brilliance in defining the human threshold for pain, suggest a mind capable of intricate experiments and a soul of exquisite sensibility, a sensitive nature soothed by an enigmatic woman, lured from his wrenching domestic situation and accompanying breach of emotional security. With Emmeline as panacea, Caleb is increasingly drawn into conflict with the careful construction of his life: “Time was so soft, the clocks might hang like limp rags.”

Past and present come alive in Moore’s evocative passages, images captured by an eye accustomed to nuance, like an incident in Caleb’s childhood, confronted by “the kind of boy who still followed the words with his finger when the class was reading, who wore shoes with Velcro because laces confounded him.” The tentacles of the past wind through the turmoil of his present dilemma, Caleb caught between both. Even as events spiral out of control, Caleb is fueled by inner resources, embracing the future with renewed clarity.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2016

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