The Poison Bed is a slight change of direction for Elizabeth Fremantle. She has previously written four conventional historical fiction novels set in the Tudor and Elizabethan periods, telling the stories of Katherine Parr (Queen’s Gambit), Katherine and Mary Grey (Sisters of Treason), Penelope Devereux (Watch the Lady) and Arbella Stuart and Aemilia Lanyer (The Girl in the Glass Tower). This, her latest novel, also features the story of a strong and fascinating woman, but includes additional elements of mystery and suspense which give the book the feel of a psychological thriller at times. It’s not entirely different from her other books, but different enough that she obviously felt a slight change in name was appropriate.
The novel opens in 1615 with Frances Howard and her husband Robert Carr imprisoned in the Tower of London, accused of the murder of Thomas Overbury. Overbury had been a friend of Robert’s, but was opposed to his marriage to Frances – is this why he had to die, or could there be another reason? There is certainly plenty of evidence to link both Frances and Robert with his poisoning, but in order to discover the truth, we must go back to the beginning of their relationship and follow the chain of events that led to Overbury’s death.
Robert and Frances take turns to tell their side of the story in alternating chapters headed ‘Him’ and ‘Her’. Robert’s is written as a straightforward first person narrative, while Frances relates her story to a young wet nurse who is sharing her room in the Tower to help take care of her newborn baby. In this way we get to know both main characters, as well as their friends, family members and rivals – but it’s important to remember that at the court of King James I, nobody is ever exactly as they seem.
As one of the ambitious and powerful Howard family, Frances could be seen as a pawn, pushed into making one advantageous marriage after another – first to Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and then to Robert Carr. Yet Frances is an intelligent young woman with a mind of her own; she is prepared to do what is necessary to take control of her destiny…but would this include murder?
Robert Carr is the king’s favourite – some would say the king’s lover – and this has enabled him to rise to a much higher position at court than he could otherwise have hoped to achieve. Robert (at least as he is depicted by Fremantle) does not really have the strength of character to take advantage of this, but others, such as Frances’s scheming great-uncle, see getting close to Robert as a way of wielding influence over the king. Robert denies any involvement in Thomas Overbury’s murder, but is he telling the truth?
While Robert and Frances, as our narrators and protagonists, are always at the heart of the novel, there are other interesting characters to get to know too. I particularly liked the portrayal of James I and his relationship with Robert, but I also enjoyed the elements of black magic in the story and the roles played by the astrologer Simon Forman and the physician’s widow Anne Turner. There’s a lot going on in this novel, which makes it quite a gripping read. I found the first half more enjoyable than the second, which is when the thriller aspect becomes more dominant, but that’s just my personal preference.
The Poison Bed, in case you’re wondering, is based on a true story – you can find plenty of information on the Overbury Scandal online – but the interpretation of the characters and their motives is Fremantle’s own. If all of this is new to you, I would recommend not looking up any of the facts until after you’ve finished the novel as it’s a story packed with twists, turns and surprises. I have read about the same events before, in Marjorie Bowen’s The King’s Favourite from 1938, but this is a very different book, with a fresh and different approach. I love the cover too!
It seems that the author is currently writing another historical crime novel under the E.C. Fremantle name called The Honey and the Sting. I’m curious to see what it is about.
This is book 3/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.