Poison Shy

By Stacey Madden

The title of Stacey Madden’s debut novel is a term used in the extermination trade referring to how a pest learns to avoid poisons it has already encountered. In the human context it may be rendered as “once bitten, twice shy”: a lesson that is learned the hard way by pest control worker Brandon Galloway after his disastrous exposure to pretty poison in this sexy thriller.

The setting is a southwestern Ontario “blue-collar nowheresville” called Frayne, a place that must be a fair-sized city given its social geography but that nevertheless has a small-town feel about it. The poison in Brandon’s case is Melanie Blaxley, a student at Frayne University (or F.U.). Called in to spray Melanie’s apartment for bed bugs, Brandon falls hard for the trampy redhead and soon finds himself mixed up in various seedy doings. As in most fictional small towns, everyone seems to be connected, and the novel spins a web that includes Melanie’s mysterious roommate Darcy, a local bar owner, a pair of shell-shocked mothers, Brandon’s affable co-worker, and a dogged Frayne police detective.

A short book, Poison Shy is tightly plotted out of necessity. Like vintage film noir it moves at a brisk clip and isn’t too concerned about the odd loose thread, enigmatic utterance, or occasional twitch of improbable coincidence. Pacing is everything, and it’s hard to think of a recent novel with less dead air. Instead of spending a lot of time developing character, the people we meet are quickly introduced and their oddities and perversions left unexplained. Imagery, particularly involving the stuff that comes out of our bodies, and thematic leitmotifs (“there really was something poisonous about this town,” Brandon thinks), become rhythmic elements, giving the book a jazzy sort of beat.

It is, in other words, a book not to be thought about too deeply but just experienced. To be sure Madden is working a set of conventions – Brandon is the typical honest loser of noir fiction, and Melanie his skank fatale – but they’re given enough of a spin and sketched with enough fresh detail to make this a thoroughly enjoyable treat for fans of seedy urban squalor, eccentric characters, and stories as coiled and tight as mattress springs.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, October 2012.

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