Dr. Caleb Maddox is one of the top toxicologists in the field. His research into the chemical analysis of pain is highly admired and heavily funded, which means his own lab is better equipped than most. And so when his friend Henry Newcomb, San Francisco’s medical examiner, asks for help on a case, Caleb doesn’t turn him down. Henry fears there may be a serial killer in their midst, but one whose methods are so obscure that even the police haven’t caught the connection. What’s worse, Henry suspects his own lab could have made the link but for faulty equipment or possible oversight on the part of his own employees. Sure enough, Caleb does find a connection in the cases that indicates undeniably foul play. And Caleb himself is considered a witness in one of the murders.
Caleb doesn’t know anything about the victim in question except that they spent the same evening at a local bar one weekend night. But Caleb only had eyes for one particular patron that evening – the mysterious woman who ordered absinthe. And it’s this woman he’s determined to keep all to himself, obsessed with tracking her down and keeping her out of the attention of the police.
From the start, I had no real idea where this story was taking me but I knew I was in it for the long haul. First, there’s the murder mystery: the idea that someone is killing men in and around San Francisco for so long with just one person making the connection was definitely intriguing. Maddox’s research and eventual discovery about the connection between the cases leads to a secret investigation that hinges completely on Maddox staying uninvolved as far as the police are concerned. Which creates something of a secondary mystery – what exactly is in Maddox’s past and why is he so determined not to have to be a witness should a case go to court?
And then there’s Maddox’s obsession with the absinthe woman. At first, this element was a bit jarring. It felt like two different stories at times – Maddox’s hunt for his mystery woman and the hunt for San Francisco’s twisted serial killer. But as Maddox chases this strange woman down a rabbit hole of modern speakeasies and cocktails, his story becomes more and more entwined with that of the city’s murders.
The Poison Artist is a brilliantly plotted psychological thriller, the kind that definitely stays with you well beyond the final page.
4/16 Becky LeJeune
THE POISON ARTIST by Jonathan Moore. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (January 26, 2016). ISBN-13: 978-0544520561. 288p.