Elaine Forman Crane's "The Poison Plot" takes a reliable and well-tried premise for a diverting murder plot and devolves into the literary version of an existential crisis. This book simply doesn’t know what it wants to be.

"The Poison Plot: A Tale of Adultery and Murder in Colonial Newport," by Elaine Forman Crane. Cornell University Press. 272 pages. $32.95.

Mary Arnold is the unfaithful wife of one Benedict Arnold, who is fighting his steady, mortal decline in early 18th-century Newport.

Elaine Forman Crane's "The Poison Plot" hints at rending the surface of polite and prudent society in this seaside town to reveal the main character's shameless excess of desires both carnal and material. Instead, a reliable and well-tried premise for a diverting murder plot devolves instantly into the literary version of an existential crisis. This book simply doesn’t know what it wants to be.

The Benedict Arnold in question predates the infamous American traitor, although they were related.

At first blush, "The Poison Plot," which is a true story, has the look of a whodunit or a cozy mystery. The setting seems to promise an ably delivered period read, a serpentine tale worth the exploring. Instead, the person known as Mary Arnold is never experienced directly by the reader. There exists not a single quote from her own mouth and she is used by the author as a shifting point of reference for an exhausting series of financial intrigues, the sins of unethical doctors or druggists, the life stories of far-flung relations and the ongoing battles of too many others for a decent inheritance.

My objections do not emanate from a female character being shouldered from her accustomed pedestal of middle-class respectability. My protest is one of simple ennui. The author does not engage the reader because her intent seems unmoored, unfocused and with the desire to want to do too much at the expense of not doing much of anything.

The book’s omniscient voice never lets the characters share in the work of telling and showing the story. The author seems to ramble like a distracted court reporter who is reciting back the entire case file instead of only the main and relevant points.

Most good books need a subplot or two, but "The Poison Plot" offers only partly visible narrative layers, which recede into a murky, expository ground.

"Since Mary’s older brother was a cooper, it is possible that he introduced his sister to Benedict Arnold in the course of doing business with his Newport counterparts. There is no available record of Mary's marriage to Benedict Arnold but they probably wed no later than 1724."

The wavering and speculative tone fails to build any narrative momentum and Crane devotes so much time to Mary’s shopping excursions, the book takes on a feeling of retail voyeurism instead of the flavor of an engrossing mystery. The author is dealing with once-living people but she has not brought enough solid or available research to calcify the bones of a reliable story.

Though Mary is treated as the prime suspect, Crane allows this: "There is no hard evidence that Mary actually tried to poison Benedict or that he was in fact poisoned…" Then why, it must be asked, is the reader being invited to turn pages that may or may not invalidate this fact?

As to Mary Arnold herself, she is called, by turns, "illiterate" while lacking the ability to add numbers but is later described this way: "Mary’s financial savvy and knowledge of the law is evident."

An author needs to do the work so the reader may enjoy but if a narrator is unreliable, then there are many other works more worthy of your time. Crane has put too many pens in too many places and unfortunately, "The Poison Plot" allows for no antidote.

— Tim Norton is a writing teacher and a freelance writer.