cover image The Poison Thread

The Poison Thread

Laura Purcell. Penguin, $16 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-0-14-313405-3

Pairing unreliable narrators from vastly different social classes, Purcell (The Silent Companions) offers a chilling Victorian gothic thriller with supernatural overtones. Heiress Dorothea Truelove continually frustrates her father by spurning advances from “proper” suitors—instead, she possesses a clandestine passion for a handsome but socially unsuitable police officer and a not-so-secret fascination with phrenology, the study of the purported relationship between head shape and moral character. Dorothea’s research trips to Oakgate Prison introduce her to a young servant, Ruth Butterham, who was recently imprisoned for murdering her mistress. Ruth narrates her personal history to an increasingly horrified Dorothea, revealing that this is only the most recent death of many for which she bears responsibility (with varying degrees of intent). Ruth, a talented seamstress, is convinced that her malice is transformed through her needlework into violence toward a garment’s wearer, from a schoolyard bully to her own family members. Meanwhile, Dorothea (whose pseudoscience causes her to harbor secret doubts about her own moral qualities) begins to suspect parallels between Ruth’s story and her own. The novel’s suspenseful plot is a fittingly knotty one, even if the final strand is a bit too hastily tied off. But what elevates Purcell’s novel is its inflection with issues of class, race, gender, and educational inequities, upon which much of the novel’s dramatic irony relies. This smart and sophisticated historical thriller will appeal to fans of Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. [em](June) [/em]