Bounding, from wave to wave…

September 1, 2021 at 1:11 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories, The British police procedural, True crime)

…on the internet, that is, rather than on the actual ‘bounding main.’

I speak of two recent research adventures on the web, both inspired by Laura Lippman’s
new novel.

First – the premise itself. Novelist Gerry Andersen is confined to a hospital bed in his apartment in Baltimore. These are brand new digs, and he was blindsided by one of  those architectural features so cheerfully touted by real estate agents: a so-called floating staircase. Having tumbled down said design feature and badly broken his leg, he finds himself temporarily immobilized.

Gerry is not a detective – or not a professional one, that is – but his plight reminded me of two series protagonists who were: Morse and Alan Grant. In fact, Lippman at one point makes mention of Josephine Tey‘s Daughter of Time. In that classic of detective fiction, Scotland Yard’s Alan Grant, likewise laid up with a broken leg, occupies his mind with an effort to prove the innocence of Richard III in regard to the disappearance and supposed murder of Prince Edward and Prince Richard.

Then there’s The Wench Is Dead, the eighth entry in the Morse series written by Colin Dexter. (This novel was the 1989 Gold Dagger winner.) Morse, like Alan Grant, is hospitalized, not with a broken leg but with a bleeding ulcer. Like Alan Grant (and Gerry Andersen, for that matter), Morse needs  a way to occupy his mind while he’s recuperating. Someone gives him a book about a crime that occurred on a canal boat, in 1839, as it was making its way through Oxford. A passenger on the craft, Joanna Franks, was murdered; two men were hanged for killing her. The more he reads, the more convinced Morse becomes that the two men were in fact innocent.

I always assumed that the Joanna Franks case was fictional; it turns out that it was based on an actual occurrence. The victim’s real name was Christina Collins. She’d been traveling via canal boat to meet her husband, but she never made it. Her lifeless body was later pulled from the canal. Colin Dexter used these basic facts in constructing his narrative, changing the location from Staffordshire, where the crime actually occurred, to Oxford.

The Murder of Christina Collins by John Godwin came out in 2011. It features an introduction by Colin Dexter. Click here for an article with excellent photographs of the site.

The TV episode of The Wench Is Dead can be seen on YouTube:

In addition, the DVD is owned by the library – two copies, to be exact. Watch for Colin Dexter; he appears in the museum crowd at the beginning of the film.

This viewing experience may make you nostalgic for the days when this superb series was first aired, and in particular for John Thaw, whom we lost way too soon.
******************

The second adventure was sparked by this brief passage in Dream Girl:

It’s a fine little story, as clever and compact as the ones he used to read in those Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthologies. Kill your husband with a leg of lamb, serve the leg of lamb to the detectives.

What??

The story being referenced here is “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl. I read it several years ago; the mention of it in this context made me want to read it again. I found it in an excellent anthology that I own called Murder Short & Sweet. In his introduction to the Dahl story, the editor Paul D. Staudohar says:

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect short story than this one, both in plot and in presentation.

I couldn’t agree more.

This story can be downloaded by clicking on this link.

Murder Short & Sweet is available from Amazon.

And finally, do read Dream Girl. I loved it!

 

 

 

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‘She seemed like every girl who at eighteen had to sort out alone how to behave in the world, how to both invite interest and fend it off, how to have fun without getting into trouble, how to direct attention between her body and her mind.’ – What Happened to Paula by Katherine Dykstra

August 6, 2021 at 5:52 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

  In July of 1970, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, nineteen-year-old Paula Oberbroeckling suddenly and inexplicably went missing. Her remains were found four months later in the vicinity of the Cedar River.

At this time in her life, Paula had been seeing two young men, Robert and Lonnie. Robert was Black. It appears that he was her true deep love. At this same time, Paula’s relationship with her mother had grown increasingly fraught. That Spring, as soon as she finished school, she’d moved out of the family home and into rented digs with a school friend.

The date 1970 is an important one to keep in mind regarding this case. Although things were beginning to change, attitudes about interracial dating and romance were still quite negative, more so in some places than in others. And it is also vital to remember that in 1970, Roe v. Wade was still three years in the future. An unwanted pregnancy placed a woman in dire straits, with few options.

Although Paula’s death was ruled a homicide, the investigation never turned up any conclusive evidence.

The case went cold.

Almost fifty years later, Katherine Dykstra, an author, writer, and teacher, is drawn into the search for Paula’s killer. This book is about that second more recent investigation – what it found, what it failed to find, and this author’s motive for involving herself in it to begin with.

In fact, Dykstra finds a number of elements in Paula’s life that run parallel with her own experiences. Possibly too many. I’ve noticed this characteristic becoming increasingly common in true crime narratives; namely, the author’s life becoming a more prominent feature in the narrative. In my view, a little of that goes a long way. Where books in this genre  are concerned, a prefer the light to shine, laser-like and unrelenting, on the subject at hand. (See I’ll Be Gone in the Dark for an excellent exemplar.)

There’s some awkward writing in What Happened to Paula – not much, but enough to jump out at the reader – at least, it jumped out at me. To wit: “Teenagers are meant to cleave from their parents.” A true enough statement, but “cleave from” seems an infelicitous locution. On the other hand, there’s this passage concerning the lack of disclosure by law enforcement to the affected families. Dykstra contends that the police were pretty sure who the culprit was, but lacking the proof of their suspicions, they felt duty-bound not to divulge them to the Oberbroeckling family.

The Oberbroecklings, the Farleys, the families of the estimated 200,000 homicides that have gone unsolved since the 1960s have no idea what happened to their loved ones. These people have been left to state into a gaping abyss where nothing is true and everything is possible. And so, by  considering a homicide internally solved but never informing the family or arresting the culprit or even closing the case, the powers that be have denied the Oberbroecklings and anyone else who cared about Paula closure.

One can understand the position of law enforcement in a situation like this, but one can also readily sympathize with the family and other loved ones of the victim.

Finally, I have to say I wonder why the decision was made to include to photographs in this book. When I Googled Paula Oberbroeckling, I was momentarily stunned:

Paula Jean Oberbrockling 1952-1970

 

 

 

 

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American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins: A book discussion, with a brief true crime digression

July 22, 2021 at 3:22 pm (Book clubs, books, True crime)

I thought this would be a good discussion – but I didn’t know just how good!

First of all, the turnout was better that I’d anticipated – ten people, which is a good number for this type of gathering. And secondly, everyone was primed to let loose with their feelings and impressions.

There was general agreement that the novel was a terrific reading experience. Right from the outset, Jeanine Cummins manages to generate tremendous suspense, while creating characters that are real and immensely sympathetic.

When their entire family is ruthlessly murdered at their home in Acapulco, Lydia and her son Luca are the sole survivors. The killers, members of a powerful cartel, will not stop until they have taken out Lydia and Luca as well. And so mother and son must  flee; there is no alternative. They do as so many of their countrymen, as well as others from further South have done: They join los migrantes on their journey, north to el norte.

And what a journey it is – full of danger  and heartbreak. I felt as though I were going along with them. Except that I could take a break and close the book for a while – something I kept having to do. Lydia and Luca and the others had no choice but to keep going.

Carol admitted that she paged forward to the conclusion so she could be reassured that Lydia and Luca survived their ordeal. In her review for the New York Times, Lauren Groff says: “A few pages into reading Jeanine Cummins’s third novel, American Dirt, I found myself so terrified that I had to pace my house.” (This is a terrific article, well worth reading in its entirety.)

Connie reminded us of the importance of the issue of trust in this story. On top of the day to day worries concerning mere survival, Lydia had to be constantly looking over her shoulder to see if there were someone – it could be anyone – traveling with their group who was in the pay of the cartel whose leader wanted her dead, That person could reveal her whereabouts, or just kill her outright. If anything happened to her, what would become of Luca?

Luca. To me, he was the beating heart of this novel. An exceptionally bright little boy, with an inquiring mind and a strong sense of justice; moreover, he was endowed with warmth and generosity, plus other endearing traits that make some children especially lovable.

It’s hard to discuss American Dirt without dwelling on the controversy that surrounded its publication early last year. Certain commentators, especially from the Latino and Latina communities, tore into it, claiming that Cummins’s description of the migrants was stereotyped and inaccurate. The consensus among them seemed to be that she was writing about people and an experience that she  simply didn’t understand – couldn’t understand, because of her outsider status.

I read up on this subject to a fair degree, and I think that the harshest criticism stems from the fact that American Dirt was given such a large publicity push by its publisher, Flatiron Books, accompanied, at least initially, with rapturous praise. Among other things, this resulted in Jeanine Cummins receiving a seven-figure advance and American Dirt being selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club.. Other worthy titles by Latino and Latina writers have been given nowhere near this kind of support, by their publishers or by anyone else.

From Ann Patchett:

“There’s a level of viciousness that comes from a woman getting a big advance and a lot of attention….If it had  been a small advance with a small review in the back of the book section, I don’t think we’d  be seeing the same level of outrage.”

For my part, I can understand the frustration and resentment occasioned by this incident. I also feel that certain practices by the publishing industry have  been been exposed to the glare of publicity and are being seen as arbitrary and money-grubbing. In my opinion, rightly so.

One thing I can’t agree with at all is the level of disparagement that, in some cases, has  been directed at this novel. The most egregious example of this that I personally have seen comes from a review in the New York Times by Parul Sehgal. I don’t want to quote from this article at any length here, because it makes me slightly crazy just to look at it. Suffice it to say that among the brickbats Parul Sehgal hurls at American Dirt is the assertion that Cummins is guilty of “mauling the English language.”

Did she read the same novel I did ?

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m hypersensitive about precision, beauty, and correctness in writing. One misplaced apostrophe and I’m likely to go off on a rant. So I just want to voice the opinion here that American Dirt contains some of the most powerful and compelling writing I’ve encountered in a work of fiction in a long time.

This sentence describes the first  glimpse Lydia and Luca get of the notorious freight train known as La Bestia – The Beast:

There’s a new reverence to having seen it with their own eyes, the unfeeling crush of the wheels along their rails, the men clinging to the exoskeleton like beetles on a window screen.

Holding Luca outside her body for the first time, Lydia expected there would be a moment when these notions would flood through her, all at once, like a small death. A portal. She’d hoped, like on of those desert rattlesnakes, to shed the skin off her anguish and leave it behind her in the Mexican dirt. But the moment of the crossing had already passed, and she didn’t even realize it had happened. She never looked back, never committed any small act of ceremony to help launch her into the new life on the other side. Nothing can be undone. Adelante.

(That last word is translated by Google as ‘Go ahead.’ In this context, I think it actually means ‘Keep going.’)

I think that this article in Vox provides a good summary of the controversy.

I believe I speak fairly for our group when I say that we thought this novel was outstanding. The plot – especially the creation and maintaining of extreme suspense, the memorable characters, the writing – every aspect won praise. Two people had first hand experience of travel in Mexico; they expressed that from their viewpoint,  Cummins’s depiction of the country was reasonably accurate.

We felt genuine sympathy for writers whose work hasn’t had the kind of push Jeanine Cummins got from Flatiron Books and Oprah Winfrey. From Daniel Hernandez in the Los Angeles Times:

“American Dirt” has opened a window into the ways a few select books are brought to the public’s attention at a time when many authors have to hire their own publicists or arrange their own book readings and events.

He adds, significantly:

The roll-out to some took on the veneer of insult to Central American trauma and pain surrounding the treacherous passage through Mexico.

This, then, is the fault of insensitive publisher and publicist, and not the fault of the novel at all.

I don’t think that any of us subscribed to the notion that an author should only write about groups, ethnicities, or whatever, of which he or she is, or has been, an active member. It is possible to identify powerfully with people who are “other” than yourself. Why do I feel so connected to England and its ancient history and persisting myths?? I have no blood relation to any of it. But from my very young years I have identified with it, felt part of it. When I am there, I feel a strong sense of belonging. It may be irrational, but it is potent nonetheless. Empathy can be a very powerful emotion, enabling you to transcend differences.

I want to acknowledge that  this is the third time in as many years that this group has caused me to read a book I initially had no intention of reading. (The other two were Becoming, Michelle Obama’s memoir, and Min Jin Lee’s brilliant Pachinko.) I’m very glad to have read all three. Thanks, AAUW Readers!

American Dirt is in development as a feature film. There’s very little current information on it that I could find. Here’s the trailer, but it too is pretty uninformative.

I feel as though I’ve left out quite a bit here, both from our discussion and the novel itself. I hope their are no blatant inaccuracies. Please let me know if you spot any.
******************

In the course of my brief biographical sketch of Jeanine Cummins, I mentioned that her first book was a work of nonfiction entitled A Rip in Heaven. In it she tells the story of a crime, or crimes, that took place within her own family. We briefly got into a discussion of the genre of true crime books. I read extensively in this area and taught a short course in it for Osher a couple of years ago. If you have further interest, there is lots of material online. I have written quite a few posts on the subject for this blog. If you want to read just one, I recommend ‘The Enduring Fascination with True Crime.’

 

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‘The Dark birds came and bore them across.’ – Two Truths and a Lie, by Ellen McGarrahan

April 16, 2021 at 1:20 am (True crime)

The year is 1990. The place, Starke, Florida – more  specifically, the Florida State Prison, also known as Raiford Prison. This is ten miles from Starke, and possesses a Starke mailing address. This location is in the northernmost part of the state, not far from the Georgia border.

The author, Ellen McGarrahan, is at this time an investigative reporter. (Later she becomes  a full time private investigator.) She has come to the prison to be a witness at an execution by electric chair. The person whose bleak destiny this is? A young man named Jesse Tafero, age 43. He had been convicted of the murder of two police officers in 1976.

It can be easily understood that this act of witnessing is very upsetting. The experience cannot be easily put out of mind. This is especially true for Ellen, as she starts hearing an increasing drumbeat of protest: Could Jesse Tafero have been innocent?

I will let the author sum up the situation as it presented itself, just past seven AM, on February 20, 1976:

A beat-up green Camaro is parked in a rest area fifteen miles north of Fort Lauderdale on Interstate 95. Inside are an armed robber on parole; a fugitive convicted rapist and drug dealer; his girlfriend, a rich young woman with a history of drug dealing and a loaded gun in her purse; and her two children–a baby girl and a nine-year-old boy.

There’s more:

In the car are five guns, a hatchet, a bayonet, and a Taser. Drugs: amphetamines, cocaine, Quaaludes, marijuana, hashish, glutethimide. Thorazine, Pentazothene. Cigarettes. Beer. The sun has risen but the day is new and the rest area is shrouded in fog.

Trooper Phillip Black, in performance of his duty as a highway patrolman, pulls over to see if there is some sort of problem. With Trooper Black is a guest  from Canada, Corporal Donald Irwin.

Both officers of the law were subsequently shot dead. But later, there was some question as to who actually did the shooting. Was it in fact Jesse Tafero? His girlfriend Sonia, aka Sunny, Jacobs? Or Walter Rhodes, the person who arranged the transportation? Possibly even Sunny’s nine-year-old son Eric? Or maybe more than one of these individuals is responsible.

This is the question that Ellen McGarrahan feels she must get the answer to. The right answer. She travels far and wide, mostly with her husband Peter, in her quest for the truth. She goes out of the country – to Ireland, where Sunny Jacobs now resides, and to Australia, where Eric,  Sunny’s grown son, currently lives.

All in all, McGarrahan conducts a dizzying number of interviews. Almost everyone she locates is willing to talk to her. She must constantly interpret, evaluate, and re-evaluate. The amount of physical, intellectual and emotional energy this effort took can hardly be exaggerated. No one asked her to embark on the prodigious task of re-investigating this cold case. It is quite simply something she felt called upon to undertake. (Her husband Peter is the very model of a help meet, traveling with her and supporting her quest in every way possible.)

Over all of this – over every aspect of this complicated crime, hangs the incredibly sad specter of the murder of two fine young men. It’s enough to make your heart ache.

Trooper Phillip Black, right, and Corporal Donald Irwin

This marker was placed along the highway in 2019.

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‘Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs.’ – Jim Thompson: The Unsolved Mystery, by William Warren

November 1, 2020 at 5:06 pm (Book review, books, True crime, Uncategorized)

It started with a comment about the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I. This came about because of a Zoom class I was taking on the great choreographers of the American musical theater. We were focusing on Jerome Robbins. For me, Robbins’s genius is most clearly manifest in West Side Story, both the Broadway show and then the film. He was fired from this latter enterprise for being impossible to work with – but before that happened, we got  this:

Okay, that was a total digression, but it’s one of my all time favorite YouTube videos, so I couldn’t resist.

Anyway, back to The King and I. Robbins did the choreography for that show as well, a fact of which I was previously unaware. The presenter of this class did us the great favor of screening one of that production’s most famous scenes, the March of the Siamese Children. Here it is:

In the course of his remarks on The King and I, the presenter mentioned the sheer gorgeousness of the costumes. The silk was supplied, he informed us, by Jim Thompson, founder of the Thai Silk Company – “You know, the guy who went missing in Malaysia.”

No I don’t know. Never heard of him. While the presenter went on to other topics, I remained fixated on the missing man. I found a book on the subject and read it, with great interest.

Born in 1906, scion of a prominent Delaware family, Jim Thompson seemed headed for the kind if life and career that would be expected for one of his background. Having graduated from Princeton, he aspired to be an architect, but he was unable to pass the qualifying exam that was required for licensure. Nevertheless, was able to work in that field, for a time. Then World War Two broke out.

Having begun his military career in the Delaware National Guard, Thompson was eventually recruited to serve in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), which later came to be known as the CIA. Just as he was being posted to Bangkok, the war ended. But for Jim Thompson, Bangkok was a new beginning. He took up residence there and never wanted to leave.

Not long after his arrival, Thompson discovered a corner of Thailand which housed some Muslim silk weavers. They were barely eking out a living, yet the fabric they re producing was gorgeous. He turned Thai silk weaving into a business with a future. The Thai Silk Company became a hugely successful enterprise, especially after its product was showcased in The King and I.

Meanwhile, Jim Thompson had a rich and rewarding life in Bangkok. He built a beautiful house for himself, where he entertained numerous friends and business associates. Among these were a Dr. and Mrs T.G. Ling, and a widow, Connie Mangskau. In 1967, the Lings invited Mrs Mangskau and her friend Jim Thompson to join them at Moonlight Cottage, their holiday home in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. The invitation was accepted.

Moonlight Cottage, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

On their first full day at Moonlight Cottage, the party busied themselves with a picnic and other activities, returning to the house in the afternoon to rest before dinner. All had retired to their respective bedrooms, but Jim Thompson did not remain in his. Restless, an inveterate hiker, he decided to follow a trail that led downhill from the house.

He did not return and was never seen again.

The disappearance of this prominent American businessman caused a sensation. William Warren describes in great detail the search that took place, over a period of days, weeks, stretching into months. Everyone from military personnel to psychics took part or offered theories at to what had happened to Jim Thompson. Had he strayed into the jungle area adjacent to the trail and gotten lost, or fatally mauled by a tiger? (If so, where were the remains?) Or perhaps, had an accident? Was he still involved in intelligence work for the U.S. and gotten into some sort of trouble because of this connection? Had he deliberately disappeared, wanting to end his life? Had he been preyed upon by Malaysian communists? Had he been kidnapped by aborigines, who lived in the region?

Each of these possibilities was looked into and run to  ground as  far as was possible. Large numbers of people were interviewed. The area around the trail was searched and searched again. Nothing.

Jim Thompson was 61 years old at the time of his disappearance. He had some physical issues but was generally speaking in good health.

(A mere six months after Thompson went missing, his sister was murdered in her home in Chester County, Pennsylvania. As far as I know, this crime remains unsolved.)

As the years have passed, various theories have emerged concerning the disappearance.  Claims to have solved the mystery have invariably been proved misleading or downright false – at least, until 2017. In that year, a film entitled Who Killed Jim Thompson was screened at a film festival in Eugene, Oregon. In it, producer Barry Broman claims to have uncovered evidence leading to the determination that Thompson was killed by members of the Communist Party of Malaya.  Even so, Broman admits that he would like to have more evidence to verify this conclusion.

It would be great to be able to view this film, but so far, I haven’t been able to figure out how to do  that.

Meanwhile, Jim Thompson’s Thai Silk Company is still very much a going concern. His house in now maintained by a foundation as a museum, where one can view his impressive collection of Asian art in the house which he himself designed.

In 1959, W. Somerset Maugham, celebrated author and restless sojourner, was Jim Thompson’s guest for dinner in this same house. It was in the way of a farewell tour for the elderly Maugham, who throughout his years of travel had come to love the Far East. In his thank-you note to his host, Maugham wrote:

You have not only beautiful things, but what is rare you have arranged them with faultless taste.

(The quotation in the title of this post is from Maugham’s novel The Moon and Sixpence.)

 

 

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In Hoffa’s Shadow: a Stepfather, a Disappearance in Detroit, and My Search for the Truth, by Jack Goldsmith

December 26, 2019 at 7:41 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

  Few people are able to write about this complicated subject with the kind of inside knowledge possessed by Jack Goldsmith. Chuckie O’Brien, who was Jimmy Hoffa’s indispensable foot soldier up until the time of his disappearance, was also, for ten years, Jack Goldsmith’s stepfather.

This story, turbulent and fascinating as it is, has a special meaning for those of us who came of age in mid-twentieth century America. I remember the Teamsters Union as a force to be reckoned with, constantly in the news. So was the Mob – the Outfit – whatever you wanted to call it. The two were, in certain instances, intertwined.

Chuckie O’Brien was a loving and devoted parent. He entered Jack Goldsmith’s life at a time when the youth was in need of a father’s care and guidance. Jack was so grateful for Chuckie’s devotion that he changed his last name to O’Brien. But on reaching adulthood, Jack began to see things differently. He was ambitious, wanting to make a name for himself and possibly serve in the government as a lawyer. How would he ever obtain and keep security clearance if his connection to Chuckie O’Brien came to light, as it inevitably would? And in addition, Jack had come to see his stepfather in a different light, as an uncouth, uneducated man whose choice of associations was, to say the least, dubious.

And so he reverted to the name Jack Goldsmith and proceeded to ascend the career ladder, serving for a time in the Justice Department. He is now a member of the faculty of Harvard Law School.

But that is not the whole story. Not by a long shot.

It has to be said that in the course of his adult life, Jack Goldsmith came to a new understanding and a realization with regard to his stepfather. This is how he concludes the introduction to the book:

The uneducated union man, it turned out, had a lot to teach the professor.
What follows is an account of what I learned.

Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975 coincided roughly with the building of the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (It opened in 1976.) For years, this “Jersey girl” heard the rumor repeated that Jimmy Hoffa was buries somewhere underneath the Meadowlands structure. In 2010, the stadium was demolished; no human remains were found to be present.

In Hoffa’s Shadow is the fruit of seven years of intensive research. But this was more than a fact finding mission. It was also an act of contrition, Goldsmith’s chance to make amends to the man who gave him unconditional love at a time when he desperately needed it. As such, it is a surprisingly moving work, as  well as being beautifully written and revelatory on many levels. Highly, highly recommended.

Chris Nashawaty has written an especially astute review in the New York Times.

WXYZ in Detroit aired this segment in September:

 

 

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Mystery news and views: the Dagger Award nominations

August 5, 2019 at 8:46 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, True crime)

Here are the shortlisted nominees for the 2019 Dagger Award, given by the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain:

Diamond Dagger Recipient: Robert Goddard

CWA Gold Dagger:
All the Hidden Truths, by Claire Askew (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Puppet Show, by M.W. Craven: (Constable)
What We Did, by Christobel Kent (Sphere)
Unto Us a Son Is Given, by Donna Leon (Heinemann)
American by Day, by Derek B Miller (Doubleday)
A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better, by Benjamin Wood (Scribner)

CWA John Creasey (New Blood):
All the Hidden Truths, by Claire Askew (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Boy at the Door, by Alex Dahl (Head of Zeus)
Scrublands, by Chris Hammer (Wildfire)
Turn a Blind Eye, by Vicky Newham (HQ)
Blood & Sugar, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (Mantle)
Overkill, by Vanda Symon (Orenda)

CWA ALCS Gold Dagger for Non-fiction:
All That Remains: A Life in Death, by Sue Black (Doubleday)
Murder by the Book: A Sensational Chapter in Victorian Crime,
by Claire Harman (Viking)
The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, by Kirk Wallace Johnson (Hutchinson)
 An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere,
by Mikita Brottman (Viking)
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold (Doubleday)
The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, by Ben Macintyre (Viking)

CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger:
Give Me Your Hand, by Megan Abbott (Picador)
Safe Houses, by Dan Fesperman (Head of Zeus)
Killing Eve: No Tomorrow, by Luke Jennings (John Murray)
Lives Laid Away, by Stephen Mack Jones (Soho Crime)
To the Lions, by Holly Watt (Bloomsbury)
Memo from Turner, by Tim Willocks (Jonathan Cape)

CWA Sapere Books Historical Dagger:
The Quaker, by Liam McIlvanney (Harper Fiction)
Destroying Angel, by S.G. MacLean: (Quercus)
Smoke and Ashes, by Abir Mukherjee (Harvill Secker)
The House on Half Moon Street, by Alex Reeve (Raven)
Tombland, by C.J. Sansom: (Mantle)
Blood & Sugar, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (Mantle)

CWA International Dagger:
A Long Night in Paris, by Dov Alfon;
translated by Daniella Zamir (Maclehose Press)
Weeping Waters, by Karin Brynard;
translated by Maya Fowler and Isobel Dixon (World Noir)
The Cold Summer, by Gianrico Carofiglio;
translated by Howard Curtis (Bitter Lemon Press)
Newcomer, by Keigo Higashino;
translated by Giles Murray (Little, Brown)
The Root of Evil, by Håkan Nesser;
translated by Sarah Death (Mantle)
The Forger, by Cay Rademacher;
translated by Peter Millar (Arcadia)

CWA Short Story Dagger:
“Strangers in a Pub,” by Martin Edwards (from Ten Year Stretch, edited by Martin Edwards and Adrian Muller; No Exit Press)
“Death Becomes Her,” by Syd Moore (from The Strange Casebook,
by Syd Moore; Point Blank Books)
“The Dummies’ Guide to Serial Killing,” by Danuta Reah (from The Dummies’ Guide to Serial Killing and Other Fantastic Female Fables,
by Danuta Reah [aka Danuta Kot]; Fantastic)
“I Detest Mozart,” by Teresa Solana (from The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, by Teresa Solana; Bitter Lemon Press)
“Bag Man,” by Lavie Tidhar (from The Outcast Hours,
edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin; Solaris)

Dagger in the Library:
M.C. Beaton
Mark Billingham
John Connolly
Kate Ellis
C.J. Sansom
Cath Staincliffe

Debut Dagger
(for the opening of a crime novel by an uncontracted writer):
Wake, by Shelley Burr
The Mourning Light, by Jerry Krause
Hardways, by Catherine Hendricks
The Firefly, by David Smith
A Thin Sharp Blade, by Fran Smith

Let me say right off the bat that I’m delighted to see Robert Goddard being honored in this way. I read his first novel, Past Caring, when it came out here in 1986 and recognized at once that he was an excellent new talent. Since then, he’s written twenty-six more novels, of which I’ve read some twelve or thirteen.

Goddard’s books are not conventional mysteries; rather, they’re a blend of some of the elements of crime fiction and those of espionage, novels, international intrigue, and often historical fiction as well. They’re gracefully written and not fiendishly complicated or stuffed with extraneous characters. There’s often a love story, either incipient or well under way.

Goddard’s oeuvre constitutes a mix a mix of stand-alones and limited series. Into the Blue, one of three novels featuring Harry Barnett, was filmed with John Thaw in the starring role.

Of the titles I’ve read, I’d especially recommend these:

For a complete list, click here.

I’ve read just a few of the fiction titles on this list. The Donna Leon – Well, I love every one of the Guido Brunetti novels, and as for as I’m concerned,  Unto Us a Son Is Given is just as good as its predecessors. Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott and Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman are both excellent. And a special shout out for C.J. Sansom’s Tombland, a marvelous, sprawling historical novel that had me so absorbed that I fairly flew through its 880 pages – no problem.

Finally, the category of non-fiction is where I’ve read the most. Murder by the Book: A Sensational Chapter in Victorian Crime by Claire Harman was interesting, though for me, it fell short of being truly gripping. I was intrigued, though by the description of  the public’s fevered obsession with the crime – the murder of an elderly aristocrat by one of his servants. It showed that today’s intense absorption in true crime is really nothing new, although on this particular morning, after a horrible bloody weekend in this country, people might be more inclined to turn away from the subject.

I know that The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson got excellent reviews, but for whatever reason it did not work for me. I got about fifty pages in and then gave up. All That Remains: A Life in Death, by Sue Black looks really good. I hadn’t heard of it before; at present, it resides on my already groaning night stand.

An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere by Mikita Brottman. I was really pleased to see that this book made the cut. The unexplained death in the title refers to the body of a young man, inexplicably found on a section of roofing of Brottman’s own apartment complex in Baltimore. Her investigation takes some strange turns until she reaches a conclusion. The book was riveting.

The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, by Ben Macintyre. Yet another terrific read. I’m not sure how or when I became so interested in  espionage, both fictional and actual, but I’ve had some excellent reading in the field in recent years. One of the best was also written by Macintyre: A Spy Among Friends, the story of the perpetually notorious traitor Kim Philby. The Spy and the Traitor is Philby in reverse: it’s the story of Oleg Gordievsky, who, during the Cold War, repeatedly risked his life to inform on his Russian spymasters for the benefit of British intelligence. The story of his exfiltration is as suspenseful as anything Le Carre ever dreamed up. (Charlotte Philby, granddaughter of Kim, has just published a novel entitled The Most Difficult Thing.)

  Finally, there is Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five, in which the lives of each of Jack the Ripper’s five victims are explored and revealed in detail. This book to my mind is a triumph. These women are worth knowing about as distinct individuals who struggled constantly with poverty, displacement, and an uncaring environment. While reading this saga, I had to keep reminding myself that this was Victoria’s England, where royalty and aristocrats lived in splendor and had their every want and need catered to.

What a prodigious feat of research this book is! For my money, it should win every award in the book, and then some.

And before I close, I want to recommend Michael Dirda’s recent piece in the Washington Post on Somerset Maugham‘s Ashenden stories. Dirda says this about Maugham’s style:

While no one denies Maugham’s gifts as a storyteller, his prose has regularly been dismissed as pedestrian. Not so. It is plain, direct, natural, the language of a well-educated, civilized Englishman. If you would write perfectly, Maugham once declared, you should write as clearly, as urbanely as Voltaire, which is just what he himself tries to do.

When I read that, I wanted to stand up and cheer! (In fact, I may have actually done so. Husband Ron is  indulgent of such occasional outbursts; the last one occurred when Alice Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature.)

  Ever since reading the 2009 biography of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings – reviewed and recommended by Michael Dirda in the Post – I’ve been delving into his novels and stories at regular intervals. I have to say, though, that  Ashenden: or the British Agent is well overdue a definitive new edition by a major publishing house. Knopf, New York Review Books, are you listening?

Click here to read “‘Ashenden’: the Perfect Late Summer Escape Read, and a Classic.”
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‘They began their lives in deficit.’ – The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold

June 22, 2019 at 2:16 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

  I’ve learned to stop describing this book as being about the five women murdered by Jack the Ripper. As soon as people hear those last three words they recoil in horror. But wait –

The Five is subtitled, The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper. The book is about the lives of those five individuals up until the time of their respective demises in 1888. What it is most definitely not about is Jack the Ripper.

From the Amazon page:

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden, and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers.

They were orphaned while still underage. They got caught in destructive marriages or relationships. They had a child, or children, whom they worked to support and protect. They often stayed in rooming houses that were at best insalubrious, sharing rooms, and even beds, with strangers. As many as 48.9 percent of English women of the ‘lower classes’ could not read or write.

This book contains many passages that are well nigh brutal in their depiction of what living in poverty did to these women. Even so, moments of great poignancy occur. In this one, Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, the Ripper’s first “canonical” victim, is identified by her estranged husband William, in the presence of Inspector Abberline. William and Polly were both entitled to their recriminations; yet they never stopped caring about each other:

Abberline noticed that the color had drained  from Nichols’ face. He was noticeably shaken by the sight and then broke down.
“I forgive you as you are.” He addressed Polly as if she were merely sleeping and the brutish cuts on her body had not ended her life. “I forgive you on account of what you have been to me.”
It took Williams some time to compose  himself. The coffin lid was moved back into place, and Abberline showed the grieving husband back across  the yard and into the station.

Some of  the environments in which both men and women had to live and work were truly terrible. They displayed the results of unrestrained and unregulated industrialization at its worst. Here, Rubenhold quotes a description of a “deadened, scorched landscape” that prevailed in the West Midlands in the mid-nineteenth century:

“On every side, and as far as the eye could see into the heavy distance, tall chimneys, crowding on each other, and presenting that endless repetition of the same dull, ugly form, which is the horror of oppressive dreams, poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light, and made foul the melancholy air.”

(This, from Charles Dickens, who knew a thing or two about such conditions.) Catherine ‘Kate’ Eddoes was sent to live (with an aunt and uncle) and work in this place, sometimes referred to as the Black Country.

Hallie Rubenhold has done prodigious research and produced a fascinating recreation of a particular time and place. But most of all, The Five is a searing indictment of the conditions and expectations foisted upon the poor women of the nineteenth century. From the summing up at the book’s conclusion:

The cards were stacked against Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane from birth. They began their lives in deficit. Not only were most of them born into working-class families; they were also born female. Before they had even spoken their first words or taken their first steps, they were regarded as less important than their brothers and more of a burden on the world than their wealthier female counterparts.

One gets the feeling that this book, meticulously sourced and beautifully written, was in fact written in a mood of barely suppressed rage. The concluded chapter is called “Just Prostitutes;” and in it, the dam of the author’s anger is well and truly breached. She gives vent freely, as in these words:

A woman’s entire function was to support men, and if the roles of their male family members were to support the roles and needs of men wealthier than them, then the women at the bottom were driven like piles deeper and harder into the ground in order to bear the  weight of everyone else’s demands. A woman’s role was to produce children and to raise them, but because rudimentary contraception and published information about birth control was made virtually unavailable to the poor, they…had no real means of managing the size of their families or preventing an inevitable backslide into financial hardship. The inability to break this cycle–to better their own prospects and  those of their children–would have been soul crushing, but borne with resignation.

In the course of this book, the reader is made to witness the terrible struggle on the part of each of these women as they attempt to withstand the conditions foisted upon them, as they endure repeated pregnancies and try to care for sick and dying children, only to fall victim, finally, to the savage ministrations of Jack the Ripper.

One of Hallie Rubenhold’s chief goals in writing The Five is to put to rest the assumption that these women were prostitutes. Selling themselves was a desperate act when no other way of  getting money was available to them. Only the last, Mary-Jane Kelly, resorted to it with any kind of frequency.  The others, including Mary-Jane herself, engaged in any number of other kinds of back breaking labor – anything to put food on the table without resorting to the ultimate debasement. To write off each of these women as “just prostitutes” is a calumny which this author seeks to redress and prove to be untrue. She has succeeded, all the while telling a riveting and ultimately heartbreaking story.

Hallie Rubenhold

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘…it is a “locked room” mystery written by Sophocles.’ – The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson

April 9, 2019 at 4:51 pm (books, True crime)

I’ve had a strange experience, reading this book. It begins, of necessity, with  recounting of the circumstances that led to the murder of Andrew Borden and his wife Abby. Immersed as I’ve been  recently in this story, I didn’t discern anything new in Cara Robertson retelling. This, despite the fact that every time I revisit this scenario, its mixture of strangeness and horror grabs hold with great force.

I read on. The chief body of the text concerns the trial. I found that the minute retelling of the witness testimony began to drag. I was having to push myself to keep going.

One note that was sounded throughout the proceedings concerned the demeanor of the defendant: “Throughout the trial, Lizzie Borden remained a sphinxlike cipher.” Her lack of responsiveness puzzled all who saw her. Where were the tears, where the shuddering? I had the sense that some among the observers went from puzzlement to exasperation, even to anger, in the way that our feelings sometimes evolve when we simply cannot figure something out.

At any rate, the trial dragged on. At one point, I was close to throwing in the towel. But then the unexpected occurred, in the form of the closing arguments. George Robinson for the defense; Hosea Knowlton for the prosecution. For me, the pace of the narrative changed suddenly. The eloquence of these two attorneys held me spellbound. I fairly raced through to the conclusion.

Except there was no conclusion. There I was, eagerly flipping the pages, ready for more, when I found that I’d reached the Acknowledgements. From the storehouse of her vast and meticulous research, Cara Robertson had told all she had to tell.

From George Robinson, for the defense:

“Right at the moment of transition she stood there waiting,between the Court and the jury; and waited, in her quietness and calmness, until it was time for her to properly come forward. It flashed through my mind in a minute. There she stands, protected, watched over, kept in charge  by  the judges of  this court and by the jury who have hr in charge. If the little sparrow does not fall unnoticed to the ground, indeed, in God’s great providence, this woman has not been alone in this courtroom, but ever shielded by His  watchful Providence from above, and by  the sympathy and watch[ful] care of those who have her to look after.”

Cara Robertson observes that Lizzie’s lawyer has portrayed her as “an orphan in need of paternal guidance and protection, a ward of the court rather than a prisoner in custody.” And she cannot resist adding, with more than a touch of irony:

It was a neat rhetorical sleight of hand, considering that Borden was on trial for having created her own orphanhood.

(Robinson’s closing lasted just under  four hours. At that time, lengthy closing arguments were not all that unusual.)

From Hosea Knowlton, prosecutor:

“It was not Lizzie Andrew Borden, the daughter of Andrew J. Borden, that cme down those stairs, but a murderess, transformed from all the thirty-three years of an honest life, transformed from the daughter, transformed from the  ties of affection, to the most consummate criminal we have read of in all our history or works of fiction.”

As is by now well known, George Robinson and his defense team won the day. When the ‘Not Guilty’ verdict was read out, the courtroom erupted in shouts of rejoicing, which were in turn taken up by  the crowd outside the courthouse building. Lizzie finally let her feelings show. She was thrilled with her  exoneration and couldn’t express sufficient gratitude to her attorneys, the jurors, and various other  friends and supporters.

The good feeling did not last….

Lizzie and Emma could have gone anywhere else to live, at that point. But they elected to remain in Fall River – although not in the same house, the seemingly accursed domicile on Second Street. It was now 1893. As time went on, relations between the sisters began to deteriorate. In 1905, Emma moved out of their house. The sisters never spoke again.

Lizzie Borden herself never publicly commented about the case that altered the course of her otherwise drab life. Like the town that bred her and then ostracized her, as she aged, Lizzie Borden turned inward, reclusive, and, above all, silent.

Lizzie – by then, Lizbeth – Borden, at her house on The Hill, dubbed Maplecroft, with her dog, Laddie

As I was reading – and in some part laboring to get through this book, I kept saying to myself, okay, this is it – this is the last book I read on the subject of the Borden murders. Well, at this point, all I can say to myself in response to that assertion is: Hah!!

Next up – eventually, most likely:

 

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The Death of Grace Brown, 1906

March 21, 2019 at 1:48 am (True crime)

The Borden killings are baffling and appalling. The same can be said of the killing of Bobby Franks by Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold.

The murder of Grace Brown is certainly just as appalling as the above named, but it is not baffling. On the contrary, considering the circumstances in which it occurred, it was almost inevitable. Above all, it is heartbreaking.

In Bringing Down the Colonel (2018), Patricia Miller tells the story of the scandal that broke in 1893 when Madeline Pollard brought suit against W.C.P. (William Campbell Preston) Breckinridge for breach of promise. In the early 1880s, in the words of the jacket copy, Breckinridge was “…a handsome, married, moralizing lawyer running for Congress” when he initiated an affair with Pollard, then a student at Wesleyan Female College, now known simply as Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. The relationship continued for nearly a decade. The inevitable pregnancies – note the plural – resulted. When Breckinridge’s wife died in 1892 and the anticipated marriage proposal failed to materialize, Madeline Pollard had reached the end of her tether.

Very early in this absorbing chronicle, Patricia Miller states the following:

The charges were shocking, given that Breckinridge was such a well respected figure. What was even more shocking, and novel, however, was what Madeline had to sacrifice to bring the suit. She had to reveal herself as a “ruined” woman–a woman who had acquiesced to sex outside of marriage. Few things could be more injurious to a woman in late nineteenth-century America. A woman’s chastity was  the bedrock of her social capital. Its loss, the specter of the “fallen” woman, haunted society.

When stating her purpose in bringing this suit, Madeline Pollard declared bluntly: “I’ll take my share of the blame. I only ask that he take his.”

Pollard was no ingenue. She was reasonably experienced in the ways of the world, particularly when those ways involved powerful men. Grace Brown was another story altogether. An unworldly farm girl from a small town in upstate New York – South Otselic, in Chenango County – she had come to the “big city” – Cortland – in 1904 to work in the Gillette Skirt Factory. She had a married sister in that city, with whom she could live. Her family back home could use the money she would make at the factory.

In 1906, Chester Gillette, a scion of the factory owner’s family, arrived in town to work at the skirt factory. He and Grace struck up a friendship which soon turned into a love affair.

According to an account told to a reporter after Grace’s death, Chester met Grace when a ring, an inexpensive gold band with an opal stone, slipped off her narrow finger and rolled across the factory floor until it came to rest at his feet. He picked it up and made a bow and a remark before handing it back to her.

From Murder in the Adirondacks by Craig Brandon

By such small gestures are our fates determined….

The relationship was secretive. For one thing, Chester was eager to rise into the upper crust of Cortland society. There was simply no place there for Grace. In truth, she was a stopgap for Chester, someone to make him feel less lonely as he was  learning the ropes in an unfamiliar environment.

Just as Chester was starting to pull away from Grace, she gave him news that he did not want to hear: she was pregnant. In those days, if you got a girl “in trouble,” you married her. No question; it was simply what was expected and what was done. Grace was desperate for the marriage to take place. But Chester was just as desperate not to do it.

Chester advised Grace to quit her job at the skirt factory and return for a time to her home in South Otselic. This she did, but once there, she was miserable. She loved her mother and her siblings dearly, but she could not bring herself to confide in them. Eventually, she and Chester made  plan to meet in another town and travel north into the Adirondacks. It was Grace’s fervent hope that they were running away to be married. And yet, in one of her last letters to Chester, in which she describes bidding farewell to the places and people she loves, she betrays her anxiety:

And mamma! Great heavens, how I do love Mamma! I don’t know what I shall do without her (…) Sometimes I think if I could tell mamma, but I can’t. She has trouble enough as it is, and I couldn’t break her heart like that. If I come back dead, perhaps if she does not know, she won’t be angry with me.”

At length, they came upon a place called Big Moose Lake. They took rooms there.

The lake was beautiful; the country, secluded. They rowed to a remote spot. Chester claimed that Grace, though fully clothed, had suddenly jumped into the water. Unable to save her, he swam back to shore. The boat, overturned, remained out on the lake; there was no sign of Grace. Her body was recovered the following day. Soon after, Chester was arrested.

The trial was a sensation. Grace’s letters were read, bringing many in the courtroom  to tears. Meanwhile,  when speaking of Chester, prosecutor George W. Ward let loose like an avenging angel:

“He has more stability of purpose, more determination, more cunning than a wolf has got…and when a pretty flower had come down from the hills he scented her out as the instrument of his lust, plucked the petals one by one and threw them under his feet.”

Quoted by Craig Brandon in his book

Chester was judged guilty and sentenced to die in the electric chair. A subsequent appeal was denied.

There is of course much more to the story than what I have heretofore related. The post on  NewYorkUpstate.com provides a good summary of events and some excellent visuals. If you need more – and I definitely did – I recommend Murder in the Adirondacks by Craig Brandon. (Be sure to seek out the revised and updated edition, copyright 2016.)

Part Two of Brandon’s book is entitled “The Murder That Will Never Die.” First there was Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy, based on the events described above and published in two volumes in 1925. This work was adapted for the stage in the early 1930s. The film version, with the same title, came out in 1931. The film A Place in the Sun, a somewhat looser adaptation, came out in 1951. I simply must interject here that this to me is one of the most brilliant films ever made. It starred an impossibly handsome Montgomery Clift, an impossibly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor – at the time of the filming, nineteen years old! – and Shelley Winters as the doomed and desperate Alice Tripp. Utterly riveting.

Finally, an operatic version of the original novel was commissioned by New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The premiere performance was presented in 2005. The composer is Tobias Picker.

In his introduction, Craig Brandon reprints the words to a ‘murder ballad’ called Omie Wise. The crime to which it refers occurred in 1807 or 1808:

I’ll tell you a story about Omie Wise,
How she was deluded by John Lewis’s lies.

He promised to marry her at Adams’s spring;
He ‘d give her some money and other fine things.

He gave her no money, but flattered the case.
Says, “We will get married; there’ll be no disgrace.”

She got up behind him; away they did go
They rode till they came where the Deep River flowed.

“Now Omie, little Omie, I’ll tell you my mind:
My mind is to drown you and leave you behind.”

“Oh, pity your poor infant and spare me my life!
Let me go rejected and not be your wife.”

“No pity, no pity,” the monster did cry.
“On Deep River’s bottom your body will lie.”

The wretch he did choke her as we understand;
He threw her in the river below the mill dam.

Now Omie is missing as we all do know,
And down to the river a-hunting we ‘II go.

Two little boys were fishing just at the break of dawn;
They spied poor Omie’s body come floating along.

They arrested John Lewis; they arrested him today.
They buried little Omie down in the cold clay.

“Go hang me or kill me, for I am the man
Who murdered poor Naomi below the mill-dam.”

(This ballad exists in several versions; this one is offered by  Bob Waltz.)

Also in his introduction, Craig Brandon offers this provocative theory concerning why  the story of Chester Gillette and Grace Brown has such a hold on the popular imagination:

The real question–why do we still care about Chester after all this time?–continues to evade us. What is it about this story of a cruel and self-centered young man who murders his pregnant lover in a lake only to be discovered and executed? One answer that comes up over and over again is that the story is what psychologist Karl Yung called an archetype, a psychological script so compelling that, once initiated, forces the protagonist to follow it, powerless to resist–and, in this case, compels others to tell the story over and over.

So, did Chester Gillette actually kill Grace Brown? The better question is, Was he responsible  for her death? Craig Brandon quotes this summation by a reporter for the Utica Daily Press:

Whether Chester Gillette struck the cruel blow which killed the girl who loved and trusted him, or whether he overturned the boat with the purpose of drowning her, or whether, according to his own statement, he drove her to suicide by refusing her the only reparation in his power and then cold-bloodedly left her to drown without making one attempt to save her, makes little difference in the essential fact that he was morally her murderer.

Grace Mae Brown, March 20,1886-July 11, 1906

 

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