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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Pied Piper's Poison

Christopher Wallace

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Title: The Pied Piper's Poison
Author: Christopher Wallace
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998
Length: 298 pages
Availability: The Pied Piper's Poison - US
The Pied Piper's Poison - UK
The Pied Piper's Poison - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : clever idea, fairly well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 6/1/1998 Peter Whittaker
The Times . 7/11/1998 Martin Higgins

  From the Reviews:
  • "Wallace's achievement in making palpable the betrayals and mistrust that underlie so much of our common story would be belittled by the trite phrase "an accomplished first novel". His book is much better than that. The Pied Piper's Poison won't leave you with a comfortable feeling about humanity and our capacities. However it is a grainy, honest attempt to probe those dark areas we give novelists sanction to investigate. As such, it is both highly ambitious and stunningly successful." - Peter Whittaker, The Independent

  • "Wallace cleverly unravels the fear and paranoia common to both (the Thirty Year War and the Cold War)" - Martin Higgins, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Pied Piper's Poison tells two intertwined stories, both on the peripheries of horrible wars. The main section is narrated by a young Scottish doctor, Robert Watt, who is sent to Germany in the immediate aftermath of World War II. There he works examining the flood of refugees pouring westwards, out of the territory occupied by the Soviets, making sure that they are not carrying infectious diseases and the like.
       Watt shares a hut with another doctor, Arthur Lee. The novel alternates between the first hand accounts by Watt describing their work and life in ravaged postwar Europe, and a document that is first introduced as written by Arthur Lee (but "submitted by B. Lee"), dated January 1947, which discusses the phenomenon of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a character that Lee situates near the end of the Thirty Years' War, ca. 1649.
       Lee himself, as described by Watt, is an odd character -- a brilliant but obsessive and somewhat mysterious surgeon who lost wife and child in the raids on England. He goes around purchasing historical documents, fascinated by the Pied Piper myth. The story he builds up around the myth is somewhat different from the familiar one, placing Hamelin not in German Brunswick but in Hapsburg Lusatia, near the Polish border, and putting the time of the story not in the 14th century, but in 1649.
       The two strands of stories are slowly built up. Watt matures from naive Scots doctor to someone able to deal with the brutal conditions he faces in his narrative. In the other, Hamelin is slowly introduced -- a mismanaged city of colourful mediaeval politicans under grave threat of attack by an armed band in a time of ravages and waste in the shadows of the Thirty Years' War.
       The strands move closer as Robert Watt is sent deep into Soviet territory, to assist at a quarantined camp where some of the refugees have come down with a baffling disease that quickly kills them. The only Westerner in a camp run by Russians and filled with Germans whose accents and dialects he can not comprehend with his rudimentary German skills he feels out of place and has difficulty adapting to the harsh circumstances. The first time he is taken to see a victim of the disease that mystified the Russians he can only believe that the patient was in fact brutally tortured and that the talk of some disease is only a cover story.
       Watt is cut off from almost all contact with the outside world. Finally he is able to summon help, though the man that is sent is none other than Arthur Lee -- an unlikely source of help, Watt believes.
       The mysterious ailment resurfaces, and it becomes clear that it is, in fact, a physical problem (i.e. not the result of torture). Watt, Lee, and the Russian doctor consider the possible causes, a progressively more unsettling list that brings further consequences with it.
       The Pied Piper story similarly grows darker as the Piper appears in Hammelin, offering them deliverance. The town agrees to his terms and he rids them of the threat from outside -- but when he is not remunerated as agreed upon he turns against the town itself, with predictable results.
       The two strands bear many similarities, and their is some overlap towards the end. The site of the modern camp is clearly near old Hamelin (at least according to Dr. Lee). Lee also offers a haunting suggestion of what the mysterious ailment afflicting the refugees there might be. In the end, as expected, everything comes crashing down in both locales.

       Wallace quite cleverly builds up his story, and he has some fine ideas, particularly about the nature of the disease, offering not only Lee's explanation but another, equally horrible one. The description of Hamelin and its fall is also quite well done, though there is an uncomfortable shift from technical and objective analysis to chatty novelistic exploration of the people and the place. Narrator Watt is unfortunately far too simple a figure, written with sincerity but little depth. The situations, and his personal growth, are all far too predictable, competently described but in all respects too artless.
       Wallace has a few scenes which he does quite well, but there is too little here that is original -- both the scenes in postwar Germany and in 17th century Hamelin are fairly unremarkable. A few scenes of horror stick out, but Wallace generally seems to be trying too hard. Most of the characters are also a bit flat (Watt and Lee included) -- not two-dimensional, but certainly missing any greater shading. Wallace does, however, redeem himself with some fine ideas. The basic idea behind the book is sound and quite enjoyable, and there are individual pieces -- especially in the explanations of the mysterious disease -- that are excellent (and quite well-presented).
       An entertaining and occasionally thoughtful book, solid though lacking polish.

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The Pied Piper's Poison: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • China Miéville's different pied piper story, King Rat
  • Robert Harris' Archangel, with similar ominous goings-on under the Soviets.
  • See also the Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Christopher Wallace is a Scottish author.

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