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How to Punish Evil Men? The Searing Tale of the Lost Apothecary

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

Novel by Sarah Penner


shelves of old, gold-labeled apothecary bottles

Is there such a thing as "noir historical fiction?"

Noir is a definite subset of literature. In general, "noir" refers to dark stories, (the translation of noir from french is "black.") Noir fiction is often based on crime stories, and it usually includes a questionable main character involved in some kind of mysterious activity.


While I've often seen the word "noir" used in conjunction with crime fiction, I haven't seen it connected to historical fiction, but in the case of The Lost Apothecary, it should be.


Sarah Penner's novel, The Lost Apothecary, focuses on a hidden apothecary shop in London in the 1790s. Its proprietor is a secretive woman named Nella, an expert in herbs and cures, potions and poisons. To call her a "healer" would be a misappropriation of the term. Nella, while she can help soothe any kind of woman's ailment, is less of a healer than a paid death consultant, a woman who will help other women eliminate the abusive, corrupt, misogynistic men in their lives.


Nella's name is whispered in the back alleys of London, and women seek out Nella's special skills when they are at their wit's end.


The one rule that Nella adheres to is that her potions can never be used to hurt another woman.


Disguising dangerous drugs


The Lost Apothecary is dark, dealing with poisons and murders. I have to remind myself that I'm reading a story, a fictional plot that didn't really happen and reading it doesn't mean that I condone the action. I'm totally opposed to murder no matter how much the victim deserved it, but I have to admit that I was glued to one of the early scenes of the book where Nella devised a scheme that would kill a man without leaving any traces of her involvement.


How, after all, do you transport a deadly elixir and get someone to ingest it while evading the law?


You put your poison into eggs.


The story that follows that scene is of a woman who corrects the wrongs that would never have been addressed without her help. It's also a study of how taking justice into your own hands haunts your soul.


Dualing storylines

Nella learned her trade from her mother whose sole mission was to help women. Nella took what she learned from her mother, but added a twist. She now uses her knowledge to dispense justice from a hidden apothecary shop in the back alleys of 18th Century London. When a young housemaid named Eliza comes to pick up an order, Nella develops the first real human connection she's felt in years. A reluctant mentorship begins that winds through the book as we watch Nella form a relationship with Eliza. We also see the difficulties of the women who come to Nella for help as well as the lengths Nella goes to in order to provide resolutions to their "problems."


The counterpoint to Nella and Eliza's adventures is the modern story of Caroline, a woman who is intent on conceiving her first child and who has saved and planned for a fabulous trip to London with her husband to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of their marriage.


Sadly, though, right before their trip, Caroline discovers her husband's infidelity. She decides to take the trip to London on her own. Hurt and humiliated, Caroline begins to explore London and goes "mudlarking." Mudlarking is a kind of "antiquing," in which participants clomp around in the muddy banks of the Thames, finding lost artifacts from bygone eras.


Caroline finds a very old apothecary bottle, a discovery that piques her curiosity and prompts her to look for the location of old apothecaries and the "cures" they offered. She begins to research potions and poisons, keeping detailed notes. When her errant husband shows up without notice, sick with a cold from the airplane ride, Caroline offers him some of her eucalyptus oil, a gesture that has unforeseen reprecussions.


Caroline's former dream was to be a historian, but she gave up her education to marry her husband. In the past decade, she has settled for a clerical job with her family's farm and a lackluster existence. With the deterioration of her marriage, Caroline once again finds her passion for history and dives into the research of the apothecary bottle piecing together the murders that Nella, "The Apothecary Killer" committed.


Can maps give you the answers you need?

I was most intrigued by the idea that Caroline found answers in old maps, and that I, too, could add another tool to my writer's arsenal of research weapons with archaic maps. It's a concept I really hadn't considered before (but then again, I haven't been in a situation where I was trying to find the location of a defunct establishment.)


Granted, there were some serendipitous discoveries of vital information in The Lost Apothecary that were just too convenient and too contrived. (But far be it from me to doubt the information that can be accessed by voluminous databases and intrepid crawlers or to criticize the efforts of an author who had to solve a plot dilemma!)


Still, it was an interesting story with relevant, recurring themes.


Themes

Both of the main characters struggle with "motherhood issues." Caroline had desperately wanted a baby, but as she finds her own way, she realizes that a baby would not solve her problems. Nella grieves the loss of a child and carries with her a sadness that never goes away.


In addition to the very common and often commented on issue of motherhood and childlessness, Sarah Penner adds a much bigger theme:


Is it ever okay to take justice into your own hands?

Is killing a person ever an acceptable course of action?


The Lost Apothecary's impact

Was The Lost Apothecary a work of lasting impact in my life?


No.


Was The Lost Apothecary a masterfully structured novel?


No. It was compelling and well-written in places but was held together with convenient, unbelievable discoveries that allowed Caroline to deduce Nella and Eliza's story.


Am I glad I read it?


Absolutely. The Lost Apothecary illustrated the difficulties of women in that era who had no options. They were, after all, the "property" of their husbands and their masters. They had no recourse against abuse and pedophilia. They were subjected to horrible maltreatment with no way to right the wrongs done them.


As with any book, I learn things. In this one, I discovered "mudlarking," researching-through-maps, and facts about herbal potions and natural remedies.


Sarah Penner's perseverance

The Lost Apothecary is a debut novel by Sarah Penner. It was published in 2021.


Penner was born in Kansas and loves to travel. She declares that her heart is "stuck in London."


She spent years in corporate America, but her writing career started in earnest after she attended a lecture by Elizabeth Gilbert who was on a tour for Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Gilbert's 2015 nonfiction book.


As a writer, I understand Penner's pain when her first finished manuscript, a novel titled, Kept, was rejected by agents 130 times. As a writer, I'm also eternally optimistic and take the lesson that perseverance is the key factor to success.


Sarah Penner began writing a different book. She attended a writing conference with several agents present, and she "pitched" The Lost Apothecary to them. She got "nibbles" almost immediately and eventually ended up with multiple offers of agent representation.


In March of 2023, her second novel, The London Seance Society, will be released.

 

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