The Lost Apothecary is a beautiful tapestry of mystery, murder, suspense, guilt, discovery, and historical adventure, as it unfolds in the dark alleyways of late eighteenth-century London. With the second period in modern times, Caroline Parcewell is an American, visiting London on what was planned as her tenth wedding anniversary celebration, until she discovered her husband had an affair. Now she is using the trip to gain space to think about where her life is going and why she never followed her dreams as an aspiring historian. In a mudlarking gathering on the banks of the Thames, Caroline discovers a small bluish vial with a strange image of a bear carved into the side.
Over two hundred years earlier, Nella Clavinger, followed on with her mother’s apothecary shop and held tight to the principle “the importance of providing a safe haven – a place of healing – for women.” There is however one major difference, Nella also makes poisons to kill men if they have betrayed a woman. All her commissions are recorded in her register a process started by her mother. While Nella is developed as a wonderfully empathetic character suffering physical and psychological pain, she is a serial killer known only to women. Because Nella is hard-working, caring, and vulnerable it is easy to forget that she has a very dark side without obvious remorse.
“My precious register was a record of life and death; an inventory of the many women who sought potions from here, the darkest of apothecary shops.”
One day a twelve-year-old girl, Eliza Fanning, visits the apothecary on an errand from her mistress Mrs Amwell, to request a potion to kill her husband, Thompson Amwell. After the deed is complete, Eliza comes back to the shop while her widowed mistress embarks on travels, and Eliza feels the ghosts of Mr Amwell haunt her. Eliza and Nella develop a friendship, both finding comfort in each other’s company and a way to work together. The relationship between the two is wonderful and their dialogue is engaging with a feel of historical authenticity.
Each chapter is well-staged, as we flip between the three POV narratives of each woman. The little blue vial becomes the seductive link between the two time periods. Caroline develops a friendship with Gaynor from the British Library, and their research opens fascinating threads that Caroline explores in the hidden and forgotten corners of London. Of surprise, Bear Alley still exists, if all but forgotten, and the web of intrigue stretches between the three women. The storytelling in Sarah Penner’s novel is clever and entertaining, engrossing with a sinister undertone, and draws that amazing atmospheric blend between modern and historical London.
I had an issue accepting the deep friendships developed after a few meetings and the thought processes with Caroline as she was caught in compromising situations. There is a tainted matter of betrayal throughout the story, mainly coming via men who pay the ultimate price. I found the following quote very telling, although a sad position to accept.
“First, there was trust. Then, there was betrayal. You cannot have one without the other. You cannot be betrayed by someone you do not trust.”
The Lost Apothecary is a highly enjoyable novel that flows at a great pace through two eras of London, as a long-held mystery of the apothecary murders is gradually solved. I would recommend this book, and I would like to thank Legend Press and NetGalley for providing me with a free copy in return for an honest review.