At the beginning of March, I finished reading the historical murder-mystery, The Poison Bed by E. C. Fremantle, who you may know better as Elizabeth Fremantle, the author of the Tudor historical-fictions: Sisters of Treason and The Girl in the Glass Tower. It would appear she is using this new pen name to take her writing in a slightly different direction.
In the autumn of 1615, scandal rocks the Jacobean court of James I, when the king’s favourite, Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset and his young, captivating wife, Lady Frances Howard are arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. There they await trial for the murder, by poisoning, of Robert’s old friend and mentor, Sir Thomas Overbury, who, it is believed, stood opposed to their marriage and knew secrets that could not only damage Robert’s reputation but that of the king, too.
Being spectacularly raised from relatively common stock up to the king’s favourite, and so one of the richest and most influentially powerful men in the land, many want to see Robert convicted whether he’s guilty or not. Frances on the other hand is believed innocent by some, but equally believed wicked and insane by her enemies, especially because she is beautiful, intelligent and from one of the most notorious families for treason. While the king suspects them both, but hopes they are not.
The story unfolds to us through alternating him and her narratives. Her’s, or France’s, narrative is told from her confinement in the Tower, with her newborn daughter and the maid given to her, to whom she unburdens the events leading up to her arrest. Whilst His, or Robert’s, narrative is told literally as the same events are happening in real time. At first, this constant switching in tense and narrative was disconcerting and a little confusing, but do hang in there if you read this because this odd style choice pays off in dividends later in the book.
Then the day of the trials arrive. Robert still maintains his innocence. While Frances admits she may unwittingly have been party to the murder. Who is telling the truth? Robert? Frances? Both or maybe neither of them? And this is where the tense swapping comes into play, because it made it very hard for the reader to compare the two narratives; spot any differences; or worse spot what may have been altered or be missed out completely. Which ultimately paves the way for one shocking reveal!
Sadly, I have heard some criticism leveled at this book for historical inaccuracies and improbabilities, and if I am honest this is a time period I know or have read much about (another of the appeals for me), so I can’t say if their correct or not. But do I feel Fremantle has used real historical characters, involved in a real crime and written a gripping tale around them. Perhaps Elizabeth Fremantle writes accurate, believable historical-fiction, while E. C. Fremantle writes sensational, historical thrillers, and I have enjoyed both!
All in all, I thought The Poison Bed was a thrilling, historical murder-mystery, that was so gripping towards the end that I stayed up way past midnight to finish it! I hope Fremantle writes more like this. Great read.
Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.
I’d love to hear from you: Have you read this? Or have you read any of Elizabeth Fremantle’s other historical novels?
This is book #1 for my Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2020.