A Botanist's Guide to Parties and Poisons
reviewed by Carolyn Scott
When a woman collapses at a high society party after taking a sip of champagne, a rare and exotic poison is suspected.
In 1923 Saffron Everleigh, the only female scientist in the Department of Botany at University College London is attending the party to celebrate the University’s upcoming expedition to the Amazon. The woman who collapsed during a toast to the success of the expedition, is the wife of Dr Lawrence Henry, Head of Biology and leader of the expedition.
Saffron’s supervisor, Prof Maxwell was observed having a bitter argument with Prof Henry a few days before the party and quickly becomes the police’s main suspect, especially when they learn that he has a very poisonous plant Solandra xolotum (known as the xolotl for short) that he brought back from an expedition to Mexico. The plant is housed in the department’s greenhouses where it is only ever handled with gloves since the poison is found in its leaves, although most people prefer to stay well clear of it.
Saffron is devastated as Prof Maxwell has always been a kind mentor to her, recognising and encouraging her talent, unlike most of the other misogynistic men in the department. Saffron’s late father was a world-renowned botanist and she is determined to follow in his footsteps, despite her grandparents cutting her off for refusing to do the conventional thing, by marrying an eligible bachelor and settling down to family life. As the only female scientist in the Biology department, it has not been easy for her to forge her career in such a male dominated department. She has already had one close encounter with the lecherous Prof Henry, a well-known philanderer and, after a narrow escape from his unwanted attentions, now avoids being alone with him.
Positive that Prof Maxwell would not have had any reason to poison Mrs Henry, Saffron sets out to prove his innocence by showing that xolotl poison could not have caused Mrs Henry’s collapse and subsequent coma. Joined by Alexander Ashton, a charming and handsome research fellow, who inadvertently finds her testing the poison, they work together to try to find out who really poisoned Mrs Henry and why.
Encased in a gorgeous cover, this is a fun and engaging historical mystery sprinkled with a little romance. I enjoyed Saffron and Alexander’s witty conversations as they tackle the mystery and their attraction to each other grows. Saffron is a woman ahead of her time for the 1920s; smart and determined, wanting a career before a husband. She’s not afraid to take risks but prone to jumping in feet first without thinking through the consequences. It might be the roaring 20s, but Saffron’s sheltered upbringing has made her a little naïve and unsophisticated. Fortunately, she has her more worldly friend Elizabeth, assistant to a lord and writer of rather salacious poetry (under a pseudonym), who provides Saffron with good advice. The descriptions of the old University buildings, cluttered offices and humid, steamy glasshouses filled with unusual plants and the excitement about the upcoming expedition all work together to provide the perfect atmospheric backdrop for the mystery.
With thanks to Crooked Lane Books via Netgalley for a copy to read.
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