Skelton’s Guide to Domestic Poisons (Skelton’s Guides, 1)

Written by David Stafford
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

Birmingham, 1928. A funeral is halted thanks to an accusation that the deceased has been poisoned. His widow is arrested for murder. The self-deprecating barrister Arthur Skelton, riding high on his success in a defamation case following a high-profile divorce which has earned him the sobriquet ‘Sir Galahad,’ takes the brief for the defence – possibly because of Mary Dutton’s startling resemblance to Lillian Gish. In his private life Skelton frets about his marriage, fearing that his rather strong-minded wife betrays him, and tries to relax by reading the novels of Elinor Glyn. He is assisted by his clerk, the pragmatic Edgar, who smells of pencil shavings and new suits, knows how to pick a lock and is prone to car sickness.

Stafford is a broadcaster and writer of comedy and drama, mainly for radio, and it shows – exhilaratingly so. I was laughing out loud by page twelve and regularly afterwards. Even the smallest cameos delight, as this one: ‘…a solitary waiter who looked as if he might have seen service with Raglan at Inkerman. Heroes who have been nursed by Florence Nightingale are commendable fellows, but you wouldn’t want them bringing your whitebait. Not if you were hungry.’ In his quest to free the widow, Skelton and his clerk are supported by Skelton’s eccentric but observant cousins, who run the itinerant Joy of Jesus Mission (much more entertaining than it might sound). Period details are perfect: the merits of celluloid over bone handles for toothbrushes, Bassett-Lowke model ships and the purple of laundry ink. Stafford’s first novel is an unalloyed delight. I look forward to more.