The Poison Bed

Written by Elizabeth Fremantle
Review by Jasmina Svenne

At the heart of one of the most notorious murder cases in the reign of James I lurks the ultimate Jacobean power couple: Frances Howard, whose aristocratic family have found themselves in and out of favour during the previous turbulent decades, and her husband, Robert Carr, who, despite his relatively humble background as the orphaned son of a minor Scottish laird, has risen to become the King’s favourite. But, as Robert’s popularity wanes and the scandal breaks, they both find themselves imprisoned in the Tower of London, retracing the steps that have brought them here in the hopes it might save their lives.

The narration of this deliberately dark and claustrophobic novel is split equally between the two central protagonists. At times they give radically different accounts of the same scene, forcing the reader to question which, if either of them, is the more reliable narrator. In fact, I was almost disappointed that Fremantle didn’t carry the ambiguity right through to the end (although there is a delicious little sting in the tail of the very last scene that will probably send readers unfamiliar with the true story scurrying to find out what happened next).

On the downside, some readers might feel that the sporadic use of modern idioms, particularly in the dialogue, jolts them out of the 17th-century atmosphere. However, this is a clever piece of historical noir, the sort of book that would probably repay a second reading, so as to put all the pieces together.