The idea of the police as a fount of law and order is overturned as detective inspector Paul Ambrose is cast as a suspect at the centre of an apparent poisoning conspiracy. Ambrose, a fictional writer in his spare time, is at Chalk Heath Hall on a week’s writing and painting course to coax information about a former attendee who has died suspiciously in India.
Yet when retired policeman Charles Coulson falls ill, Ambrose finds himself assailed on several fronts.
It is an intriguing premise – the police as the hunted – and in Poison Pen, Ambrose is under intense scrutiny not only from his trusted foil DS Sam Winters but from an array of artists at Chalk Heath Hall. Having been a suspect, Ambrose admits that in future he will have more sympathy for witnesses.
Where PJ Quinn (Pauline Kirk and Jo Summers) tell the story from Ambrose’s point of view, we are offered rich psychological insight. Ambrose, as a dabbler in fiction, wants to connect with ordinary people while keeping his policeman’s antenna attuned to any clues. He just about pulls it off.
Along the way, though, he has a few uncomfortable moments. Frank Yates, a once-famous novelist who helps to run the course, dissects Ambrose’s fiction, noticing how Ambrose’s concise style probably stems from writing reports. But Ambrose, who is ‘more used to having to assess others’, is mortified.
Author: PJ Quinn
Stairwell Books, £9.50
There is an underlying theme of the limits to new technology in the 1950s, especially when the telephone fails at a crucial point in the story. Coulson, who comes from a ‘police family through and through’, has doubts about the advent in police work of some scientific techniques which were not available before the war.
Ambrose has to deploy the full armoury of his sleuthing skills to solve this complex mystery. It seems that someone has pulled off an impossible crime. ‘It’s all so darn clever, yet it has to have been a crime of opportunity,’ he muses.
PJ Quinn sets the story in dilapidated Chalk Heath Hall to create an atmospheric setting. But it is that pervasive sense of fear when even a policeman is afraid to be alone that sticks in the mind.
Nicholas Goodman is a Gazette sub-editor