Friday, January 4, 2013

Monkshood (1939), by Eden Phillpotts

"There are worse poisons than Monkshood--remember that, my beloved boy."

"There is no light....We move under a blanket of foul smoke from hell, and the spawn of Satan that creates it will laugh, as he laughed before, to see us lost.  And they will bury [him] and say he took his own life no doubt; and we shall wait, like sheep in the slaughter-pen, till we are struck again.  And who will it be then?  Perhaps you, perhaps me, perhaps Pietro, perhaps the village priest.  We cannot tell, we can only wait this unknown devil's pleasure."

"Many people have fought for the truth, John, and, when they reached it, wished to God they had been content to let the matter remain a mystery forever."

Monkshood: "Queen of Poisons"
Aconitum, or monkshood, gets quite a workout in the late Eden Phillpotts tale Monkshood, published when the author was 77 years old.  Three deaths in a Cornwall village are attributed to this deadly flowering plant. Will you be able to determine what really was the meaning behind all the carnage?

It's an interesting problem that the author has set, though, characteristic of his later work, Monkshood moves slowly and is filled with lengthy, archaically worded dialogues (see the second quotation above).

The solution is given by the amateur detective to a friend over four successive evenings (and 71 pages).

Though references are made to telephones, cars and those twin terrors Hitler and Mussolini, the events seem as though they belong to the 1890s, say, rather than the 1930s.

Yet I have to admit I enjoyed the novel.  I suppose I am with Jacques Barzun, who wrote of Monkshood: "Perhaps it should be taken like a Bruckner symphony, on its own terms, which are not those of a modern detective tale."

a shipwreck in Cornwall in the 1890s leads
ultimately to multiple murder in the 1930s
With Monkshood, one has to be prepared for a leisurely, even ponderous, old-fashioned murder affair, more in the manner of the Victorian novel than the zippy Golden Age tec story.  Yet I was engrossed both by the problem and the psychology of the characters as well.

"Montaigne remarked that there is as much difference between us and ourselves as there is between us and other people," opines one character, "which is psychoanalysis in a nutshell."

Psychology gets quite a workout here too.

Probably the finest contribution of Eden Phillpotts to the crime and mystery genre is his Book of Avis trilogy--comprised of three novels published over 1932-1933, Bred in the Bone, Witch's Cauldron and A Shadow Passes--which tells of the remarkable activities of a remarkable Devonshire countrywoman, Avis Bryden.  But Monkshood is of interest as well, and it is a genuine detective novel.


  1. EP's finest contribution to the crime and mystery genre was the kindness and support he gave a young Agatha Christie. See her biography for details.

    Your blog is superb.

  2. Thanks, UNOwen, for the praise for the blog. I agree helping to get Christie to write is a notable accomplishment indeed!