The title of Stacey Madden’s debut novel refers to a term used in the extermination trade to describe how a pest learns to avoid poisons it has already encountered. In the human context the phrase may be rendered as “once bitten, twice shy,” a lesson pest control worker Brandon Galloway learns the hard way in this sexy thriller after disastrous exposure to pretty poison.
The setting is a Southwestern Ontario “blue-collar nowheresville” called Frayne. 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 seductive redhead and soon finds himself mixed up in various seedy doings. As in most fictional small towns, everyone seems to be connected; the novel spins a web that includes Melanie’s mysterious roommate, a local bar owner, a pair of shell-shocked mothers, Brandon’s affable co-worker, and a dogged police detective.
A short book, Poison Shy is of necessity tightly plotted. Like vintage film noir it moves at a brisk clip and isn’t too concerned about the odd loose thread, enigmatic utterance, or twitch of improbable coincidence. Pacing is everything, and it’s hard to think of a recent novel with less dead air.
Not much time is spent developing characters: the people we meet are introduced quickly and their oddities and perversions left unexplained. Imagery – particularly involving the stuff that comes out of our bodies – and thematic leitmotifs become rhythmic elements, giving the book a jazzy sort of beat.
To be sure, Madden is working a set of conventions – Brandon is the typical honest loser of noir fiction, and Melanie his femme fatale – but they’re given enough of a fresh spin to make this a thoroughly enjoyable treat for fans of seedy urban squalor, eccentric characters, and stories as tightly coiled as mattress springs.