Today I am delighted to share my thoughts on The Botanist, the brand new Washington Poe thriller from M.W. Craven. I’ve loved this series from the start and think this is possibly the best yet. My thanks to publisher Constable (Little Brown) for the advance copy from Netgalley. Here’s what it’s all about:
About the Book
‘I swear I’m one bad mood away from calling it black magic and going home . . .’
Detective Sergeant Washington Poe can count on one hand the number of friends he has. And he’d still have his thumb left. There’s the insanely brilliant, guilelessly innocent civilian analyst, Tilly Bradshaw of course. He’s known his beleaguered boss, Detective Inspector Stephanie Flynn for years as he has his nearest neighbour, full-time shepherd/part-time dog sitter, Victoria.
And then there’s Estelle Doyle. It’s true the caustic pathologist has never walked down the sunny side of the street but this time has she gone too far? Shot twice in the head, her father’s murder appears to be an open and shut case. Estelle has firearms discharge residue on her hands, and, in a house surrounded by fresh snow, hers are the only footprints going in. Since her arrest she’s only said three words: ‘Tell Washington Poe.’
Meanwhile, a poisoner the press have dubbed the Botanist is sending high profile celebrities poems and pressed flowers. The killer seems to be able to walk through walls and, despite the advance notice he gives his victims, and regardless of the security measures the police take, he seems to be able to kill with impunity.
For a man who hates locked room mysteries, this is going to be the longest week of Washington Poe’s life . . .
What can I say? Just when you think the series cannot get any better, along comes The Botanist. Probably Poe’s most infuriating and perplexing case to date and, for us readers, one of the most fun. Double trouble for Poe and Bradshaw as they are faced with not just one but two locked room mysteries. After a fashion. One sees one of Poe’s people in jeopardy, the other a whole range of ‘people you’d like to slap with a brick’ targeted by a very cunning poisoner, dubbed by the media as the eponymous Botanist.
Why slapped with a brick? Well, imagine every objectionable idiot you see touting their opinions, whether asked for or not, on social media. Your rent a gob ‘fake news’ brigades, your unscrupulous businessmen who put profit over people, your corrupt politicians and the kinds of men who would like nothing better than seeing a live enactment of The Handmaid’s Tale to reassert their lost masculinity. They are a truly objectionable bunch, and any sane reader will struggle to see them as anything like sympathetic victims. Not that any of us would condone violence or murder either, but that is that path the Botanist has chosen to take, and the journey we as readers find ourselves on alongside Poe. But MW Craven has managed to dilute some of their hideous and outrageous behaviour by pitting them against Poe’s inimitable sarcasm and Tilly’s refreshing but unintentional candour. Yes, they still make the skin crawl and the anger peak, but seeing them put back in their box in the next sentence by the kind of magical witticism that the author is so skilled at, makes it such fun to read.
Alongside the case of the Botanist, Poe finds himself distracted by a case that involves his friend and star pathologist, Estelle Doyle. She finds herself in the frame for a crime we all know she could not have committed but for which there seems an abundance of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There was never a moment of doubt in my mind about Estelle’s innocence – after all, what idiot would call in Poe and Tilly if they were guilty of murder? You know they will get to the truth. But this is a delightful and intriguing mystery that seems almost impossible to solve. Did I have my suspicions? Well, yes, but I read too many mysteries and crime novels, to be taken completely unawares. Did I see the whole picture? Not right away, only at exactly the right moment. A blink and you’ll miss it throw away comment that stuck in the back of my mind and made me begin to wonder …
As for why the media have give our serial killer the monika The Botanist? Well it’s down to their unique method of murder – poisoning their victims using naturally occurring toxins and delivering them in a seemingly impossible way. They are given advance warning of their impending fate and yet they are still caught out. The why of their selection is never in doubt, they how of the delivery is the real mystery here. This is a locked room mystery with a twist but so perfectly executed that even when you think you know, enough doubt is cast over your theory that you will end up doubting yourself. If you are careful and pay close attention you may pick up all the clues, but only when The Botanist, and the author, wants you too.
But the real power of this book is not the mystery – although they are both excellent. It’s not the cunning way in which the author has woven the two separate investigations together in a way which is seamless. It’s not even seeing some truly loathsome individuals meet a rather painful and devastating end – although there is some satisfaction to be had there, believe me. The real power of this book, and this series, are its characters. Principally Poe and Tilly, but in truth every single person that MW Craven pulls into his literary world. There is an authenticity to each and every one, and each one adds something different to the story. But Poe and Tilly, sarcasm and innocence, really make this series a winner. As a team they just shouldn’t work, but I can’t imagine either one without the other. With Poe’s natural determination and drive, especially to protect those he cares for, and Tilly’s incredibly smart mind and unwavering honesty, they are a dream team. For every shock you get a double dose of laughter, for each moment of tension, and there are many, you get an equal measure of calm and it makes a perfect balance.
The Botanist is as classic a Poe tale as you can find. Tense, puzzling, witty and with pacing that waxes and wanes with the highs and lows of the investigation, this has been an absolute joy to read. If you’ve not read this series yet, you really should, but start at the beginning. That way you get the best out of the Poe and Tilly friendship and the series as a whole. If this book isn’t on award lists next year I will be highly surprised. Most definitely recommended and it’s getting one of these too.
About the Author
Multi-award winning author M. W. Craven was born in Carlisle but grew up in Newcastle. He joined the army at sixteen, leaving ten years later to complete a social work degree. Seventeen years after taking up a probation officer role in Cumbria, at the rank of assistant chief officer, he became a full-time author. The Puppet Show, the first book in his Cumbria-set Washington Poe series, was published by Little, Brown in 2018 and went on to win the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger in 2019. It has now been translated into twenty-one languages. Black Summer, the second in the series, was longlisted for the 2020 Gold Dagger as was book three, The Curator. The fourth in the series, Dead Ground, was published last June and became an instant Sunday Times bestseller.
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