This is from an advance review copy, for which I thank the publisher. I have to remark that A Pinch of Poison is not an original title. It's already been used by Claudia Bishop and Frances Lockridge, so I think the author could have chosen a more exclusive one!
This is a book I had some issues with and frankly I dithered (yes dithered, I shall have it no other way!) on how to rate this. To me a novel is either worth reading or it's not. Some I like better than others, but I can't say a novel is fourth fifths worth reading or two fifths a disaster! I look at the whole thing and it's either worth my time or it's not. On balance, this one was even though I had problems with it, which I shall discuss shortly.
Set in and around an English boarding school for the idle rich shortly after World War One, this novel has something in common with a novel I negatively reviewed in December 2016: Prom & Prejudice by Elizabeth Eulberg. The difference between that disaster and this charmer is that this isn't first person, and it's competently written! Both novels are YA in the sense that the main characters are in that age range, but there the similarity ends.
This is much more like a book for grown-ups, and there's a world of difference between how this is written and how your typical YA novel is written. It would serve well many YA authors to read the Eulberg book and this one in comparison, in order to learn how to really write, and how to avoid chronic YA pitfalls (such as writing in first person, and going to extremes in your characterization), and how to actually create and develop realistic characters.
This is part of a series, and while I am not inclined to read any more of it since I'm not a series fan (unless they're particularly compelling!), I did enjoy this one, which is second in the series. I was pleased that you don't have to have read the first in the series in order to get into this one.
Lady Phoebe is the middle sister (the one I married as it happens! LOL!) in a wealthy family (an earldom). Her parents are dead, so her supervision is somewhat lacking. Despite that she comports herself well and is very mature (especially as compared with your typical YA girl!). We find her doing good in the form of collecting supplies for war veterans, but this is as far as her good deeds seem to extend, so this felt more like 'tell' than ever it did 'show'.
Admittedly we see her only in the context of this murder mystery, upon the resolution of which she has set her compass and is firmly and determinedly engaged, but it would have been nice to have seen her character rounded-out rather more than we got - to have shown us she was a decent sort rather than simply being told it, and then shown that she really was no better than anyone else of her class in life. As it was she came off a little bit as a one-note character. Yes she's helping war veterans, a subject which is revisited in this story commendably, but on the other hand, elsewhere in her life she seems to be rather callous towards those less well-off than herself.
Naturally, this is in some ways to be expected since it's set in post-Edwardian times. Note that there is no traditional name for the periods after the Edwardian. Britain seems to have become disillusioned with its monarchy after King Edward and gave up naming times after the reigning monarch. Of course, King George was on the throne, and 'Georgian' was already spoken for, so maybe this contributed to the downfall.
The British monarchy needs to come up with new names instead of recycling ones from previous eras! Having eight Henrys should have taught them that at least, particularly the last one who was a disgrace. The first Elizabeth - the first monarch to give her name to an era in Britain - set the pace, but her failure to generate an heir was also disastrous. Maybe that's why they didn't have another female monopolizing the throne for a couple of centuries afterwards?
So yes, people of the upper classes were appallingly ignorant of, and disdainful towards those of "lower stations" - and still are, I'm sorry to say, which is why I personally have no time at all for the not-so-nobility. I get that much, but this story was not written in the inter-war years. It's a modern story speaking of an historical period and I think it would have been a lot nicer to have depicted Phoebe actually practicing what the author has her preach. Unfortunately, she doesn't.
Lady Phoebe's crime-cracking partnership has only one other member: the lady's maid named Eva, who is an interesting character, and who doesn't get anywhere near enough air time. This is fine as far as it goes, and it makes for an interesting dynamic, reminiscent of a similar one in TE Kinsey's A Quiet Life In The Country which I positively reviewed back in November 2016. That relationship was much more equitable though.
Here, even as put-upon Eva is helping Phoebe, her own job is being neglected because of Phoebe's incessant demands, and Phoebe just doesn't seem to get this or care about it. Yes, she pays lip-service to it once in a while, but never actually does anything to help her. This made her come across as self-centered and selfish. This is not a trait you want to broadcast about your main character when she's supposed to be the good guy! We're constantly reminded of how selfish the older sister Julia, is, but frankly I saw no difference between Julia and Phoebe. I really didn't.
Eva is shared with everyone else in the house. If she was solely Phoebe's lady's maid I could see this working, but she 'belongs' to everyone. This doesn't prevent Phoebe from selfishly monopolizing Eva's time though, and putting her way behind with her work. Never once does Phoebe stop to think of what she's asking of or doing to Eva. I kept thinking that this story would have been more interesting if Lady Phoebe wasn't the detective and it was all Eva. That would have been much more difficult for an author to work, though, since Eva was so tied to the house work, and heavily subjugated to the demands of two mature sisters and a younger one as well, but some author might welcome such a challenge.
The murder is of the headmistress of the school - by poison - and Lady Phoebe is set on discovering the truth about it even as the police inspector wants to wrap up the case. She has a lot of work to do and I loved how the author had her patiently progressing through it, feeling like she was up against a brick wall, and then finding another way through with the ever-patient and long-suffering help of Eva, who was a charmer through and through. I loved her character.
I know that women of Phoebe's station were considered marriage prospects back then - like this was all women were good for, but this pairing of Eva with the police officer and Phoebe with Owen was a bit much for me. It's very reminiscent of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries with the pairing of the well-to-do Phryne Fisher and her paid companion Dot Williams with two male characters, Dot being paired with constable Hugh Collins. The upside of this is that this author is no YA hack and so she didn't make the chronic mistake of YA authors: instadore! The relationships are building slowly (over the series, it looks like) so that at least was welcome.
That said, I have to consider this a worthy read when viewed as an entity, since it did hold my interest. It felt like it ought to have been a shorter novel than it was. It felt like it was getting a little long in the tooth towards the end, and I liked the last twenty percent less than I did the first eighty, but overall, I consider this a worthy read, especially if you're into historical mysteries, so i recommend it.