What was Lizzie thinking?

August 10, 2017

See What I Have DoneIt’s one of the most famous unsolved murder mysteries in America, the story of Lizzie Borden, who is believed to have murdered her father and stepmother on August 4, 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts. She was accused and put on trial for the crime but acquitted due to lack of evidence. Both Andrew and Abby Borden were brutally butchered with an ax, and it was hard to believe back then that a woman could commit such a horrific act of anger. But if you read this new fictional account of what may have happened, it’s not at all hard to believe.

Author Sarah Schmidt came across this infamous case by chance in a second-hand bookshop. The accidental discovery inspired her to write her first novel that focuses not as much on a search for truth as on the dysfunctional family dynamic. In alternating chapters dated the day before and the day of the murders, we get personal perspectives from Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the Irish housemaid Bridget and a depraved boy named Benjamin. Be forewarned. See What I Have Done is gruesomely realistic and highly disturbing. Indeed, it’s impeccably imagined in all its vile darkness.

Lizzie comes across as demented and simple-minded in her first-person narration the day of the killings, especially when she displays a sick fascination with her father’s dead body in the parlor. Neighbors, police and the doctor believe she suffers from shock, but before they find her stepmother’s body in the second floor guest room, Lizzie looks up at the ceiling, as if she knows it’s there, tipping us off to her culpability.

Emma is out of town pursuing her artistic studies and staying with a friend. She’s thinking of never returning home, where Lizzie burdens her with neediness and ruins her life with selfish manipulations. Also, their father restricts the lives of his daughters with harsh rules, and the indifferent stepmother repulses them. Emma’s hopes of escape shatter when she’s urgently called home because of the murders.

Meanwhile, the girls’ Uncle John hires the homeless, criminal Benjamin to do away with Andrew Borden. It’s never really clear whether John is angling after Andrew’s wealth or affectedly concerned for the well-being of his nieces, who suffocate under Andrew’s parenting. (John promised their deceased mother he would watch out for them.) Propelled by the promise of big money for the job, Benjamin stealthily finds his way to the Borden household, only to discover someone killed Andrew before he got there. Benjamin hides in the Borden’s barn, where he finds the bloody ax-head and takes it. His presence in the plot cleverly provides an idea of what it could look like if an intruder had committed the murders.

Schmidt perfectly creates the psychological crazy-making in the Borden household, from Lizzie’s passive aggressive manipulations of her sister and father to Bridget’s witnessing of the dysfunction as she serves meals at the family dinner table and cleans the house. Schmidt also excels at the atmospheric details, such as the smell of sickly sweet pears from a nearby arbor; the presence of bits of bone and blood; and the haunting tick of the mantel clock.

The novel concludes with the funeral of the murdered parents, and also, 13 years later, with Benjamin visiting Lizzie and Emma. He shows them not only the bloodied ax head but also a piece of Abby Borden’s skull, which he has kept all this time. Horrific as that is, Benjamin’s final act is not as chilling as Lizzie’s utterances on the last pages of this grisly, excellent novel.

 

Recommending short story collections always feels risky. They aren’t a popular choice among readers. Rarely does a short story collection appear on the best-seller list. (Exceptions that come to mind are the stories of Nobel Laureate Alice Munro and The Stories of John Cheever.) Put another way, I’ve never met a reader who said they stayed up all night reading short stories.

Even so, story collections continue to hold a firm place in literary publishing, with the industry releasing respectable numbers of collections by new and known authors every year.* One of them, in the “new” category for this year, is The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead by Chanelle Benz, who creatively employs elements of crime and mystery in her assorted plots.

An example is a story that takes place at a monastery in the 16th century. An English monk must denounce his abbot and deny his vow of obedience. That’s because Thomas Cromwell is at work, declaring the king’s supremacy over the church. The destruction of the monk’s beloved home and livelihood challenges his faith and, later, drives him to take unholy revenge.

In another story, this one set in the 19th century, children attempt to reunite an aging, beautiful woman with her one and only true love, a man whom she says turned out to be quite mad. “It was a bad plan,” the children tell us. “A wicked plan. We did not know if it came from us or the Devil so full was it of deceit.”

These collected stories are mini page-turning dramas that sparkle in their diversity of settings, including not only England during the reign of Henry the VIII, but also 19th century American cowboy towns, the 21st century Middle East and a future created by climate change. The characters are widows, thieves, holy men, siblings and survivalists. They are colorful, and we care about them, which increases our need to learn their fates.

In one story set during the present day, a girl leaves home to do missionary work in the Middle East; however, an instance of violence causes her to join forces with a brutal, manipulative mercenary. She trains as a sniper and assumes different identities. Sections of the story are disturbing but skillfully handled to keep us focused on the worry of what will happen to her.

One of the most powerful stories builds toward moral outrage and violence in the pre-Civil War South. It’s a stunning depiction of an educated black poet from Boston who visits a Louisiana plantation to give a poetry reading. She trusts her companion, a Northern white man, who assures her safety.

There are 10 stories in all, and what binds them into a cohesive whole is the similar enticing narrative style. The author writes as effectively in the present as in the near and ancient past. Weapons, notably guns, come into play in most of the stories, heightening the dramatic danger. I’m tempted to slap the author’s hand for using such easy tools to incite page-turning urgency; and yet, these stories fall together so intelligently it’s hard to find fault.

So many story collections, especially debuts, reverberate with themes of modern relationships, lost and displaced souls, and broken hearts. While two of the stories in The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead could fall into this category, for the most part, what’s at stake in the others lifts the collection away from thoughtful snapshots into secrecy and lawlessness. Some of the story titles, like that of the book, are colorful adventures in and of themselves. The title of the unforgettable story involving the monk is, delightfully, “That We May All Be One Sheepfolde, or, O Saeculum Corruptissimum”.

*Best-selling author Richard Russo and Man Booker winner Penelope Lively are both publishing story collections in May: Trajectory by Russo and The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories by Lively.

fever-dreamFever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
When setting out to read this creepy new novel, be prepared to be initially confused over who is speaking and why. That’s because Samanta Schweblin doesn’t spell out what’s happening with dramatic set-up or a comforting prologue. Instead, she drops us directly into a nightmare where we are as clueless about what’s going on as the two main characters in conversation. It’s a brilliant technique. The initial confusion doesn’t last beyond the first two or three pages. Soon you’ll come to understand the conversationalists are Amanda, who is dying in a rural hospital, and a boy named David, who is sitting on her bed and interrogating her about the cause of her abrupt illness. He insistently urges the feverish woman to concentrate on what’s important, to not waste time, to be observant. “We have to find the exact moment,” he says in this cautionary tale. “We want to know how it starts.” I can say without a doubt the story creates a page-turning frenzy right up to the end. Highly recommended for everyone, but especially for fans of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation.

six-four-by-hideo-yokoyamaSix Four by Hideo Yokoyama
Readers of The Longest Chapter may recognize this book. I wrote about it last summer, when I read in publishing periodicals that it sold more than one million copies within the first week of publication in Japan. Six Four wasn’t available in the U.S. at that time, but it is this month, and if you’re looking for a gripping wallop of a book, this is it. What’s so surprising is that much of the narrative is about the politics and bureaucracy of police work in Japan. That sounds dry, but it’s just as fascinating as the sensational, unsolved kidnapping from 14 years ago that is generating questions. Press director and former criminal investigator Yoshinobu Mikami must arrange a visit by the police commissioner to the girl’s father on the latest anniversary of his daughter’s disappearance and murder, but the father refuses to see the commissioner. Mikami can’t figure out why, and he’s finding other matters related to the case that are resulting in a maze of official closed doors. The page count is daunting, at just over 500 pages, but don’t let that intimidate you. Yokoyama’s captivating narrative, short chapters and unusual police scenarios should have you hooked before page 100.

the-shadow-of-the-windThe Shadow of the Wind
by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Anyone who already has read this intriguing page-turner will attest to its addictive plot. This international best-seller, originally published in the U.S. in 2004, begins with a rare and used bookstore owner taking his 10-year-old son Daniel to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, an ancient, vast library that’s “a labyrinth of passageways and crammed bookshelves”  where  “…books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands.” Visitors are allowed to take and become the keeper of one book, and Daniel selects The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. He’s completely entranced by the story and wants to read more books by Carax and discovers someone has systematically been destroying them. Indeed, Daniel may now own the one remaining copy of Carax’s literary efforts. His need to know why, and what happened to Carax, takes us into an engrossing world of mystery, murder and doomed love in 1940’s bookish Barcelona. The plot perfectly twists and turns in so many perplexing directions it’s hard to turn out the reading light and go to bed.

in-the-heat-of-the-nightIn 1965, Harper & Row published John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night, and in 1967 the movie adaptation was released. Sydney Poitier played Virgil Tibbs, the book’s black police detective, and Rod Steiger played Bill Gillespie, the bigoted southern police chief who needs Tibbs’ help to solve a case. (Steiger won an Oscar for Best Actor in the role.) I never saw the film and also never read the book, until now. I picked up the 2015 Penguin Classics 50th anniversary paperback, motivated not only to read this time-honored story but also curious about its depiction of racism.

While the movie takes place in a fictionalized Sparta, Mississippi, in the book the setting is Wells, South Carolina. In the late hours of night, a murder is committed, and Virgil Tibbs becomes the prime suspect. He’s found in the segregated waiting area of the train station by Officer Sam Woods, who assumes Tibbs committed the crime and is making his getaway. In reality, Tibbs is passing through the town, changing trains on his way home to California, after visiting his mother in the South. It’s obvious the arrest happens because Tibbs is black.

When the gracious Tibbs reveals to Woods and Police Chief Gillespie that he’s employed as a homicide detective in Pasadena, California, Gillespie asks him to help them solve the murder. Gillespie knows his police force, including himself, doesn’t have enough experience to investigate the high-profile case. How the investigation unfolds puts this story in the top ranks of great mystery writing – and also in the top ranks of books about racism. Tibbs never allows Woods, Gillespie and the town councilmen to intimidate him or demean his expertise with all their offensive remarks. His overwhelming courtesy, patience and self-confidence shine a large spotlight on their egregious behavior. They come across as limited and foolish, such as when Woods sincerely wonders how a black man could receive high levels of detective training. Tibbs replies:

“…it may be hard for you to believe, but there are places in this country where a colored man, to use your words for it, is simply a human being like everybody else. Not everybody feels that way, but enough do so that at home I can go weeks at a time without anybody reminding me that I’m a Negro. Here I can’t go fifteen minutes. If you went somewhere where people despised you because of your southern accent, and all you were doing was speaking naturally and the best way that you could, you might have a very slight idea of what it is to be constantly cursed for something that isn’t your fault and shouldn’t make any difference anyhow.”

Author John Ball takes another swipe at Officer Woods’ bigotry via the daughter of the slain man, an Italian conductor who came to Wells to establish a music festival. Woods is enamored with the beautiful young woman, but she puts him in his place with a verbal slap of a comment, when he speaks of racial prejudice as a way of life in the southern states . You can just feel Woods’ reaction of being “acutely uncomfortable” after she says:

“Some people don’t like Italians; they think we’re different, you know. Oh, they’ll make an exception for a Toscanini or a Sophia Loren, but the rest of us are supposed to be vegetable peddlers or else gangsters.”

In the Heat of the Night is a suspenseful murder mystery that offers several surprising twists and turns of events on its way toward the conclusion. All along, I kept trying to guess how it would end, but I was never even close. Published in the 1960’s, the story richly reflects race relations in the Jim Crow American south with a story as memorable as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The book was named one of the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association.

Six Four by Hideo YokoyamaSix Four has caught my attention not as much for the story as for the fact that it sold one million copies in six days in Japan, according to its publisher (via The Guardian). Author Hideo Yokoyama is hugely popular in Japan for his crime novels and often likened to Stieg Larsson, the Swedish author who penned The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. From The Independent: “Like Stieg Larsson, with whom he has been (unhelpfully) compared, he is a driven workaholic and, like the late Swedish writer, suffered a heart attack after working continuously without breaks for many hours.”

The plot of this immense book (640 pages) is typical crime-novel fare. In 1989, a seven-year-old Tokyo schoolgirl was kidnapped, ransomed and murdered. The killer was never identified or found, and the Japanese public neither forgot nor forgave the botched investigation. In 2002, Inspector Yoshinobu Mikami must arrange a visit by the police commissioner to the girl’s family on the latest anniversary of the crime. Mikami is the police press director. He takes a look at the case file and discovers an anomaly. From the publisher’s book description: “He could never imagine what he would uncover. He would never have looked if he’d known what he would find.”

From what I’ve read about the book in several publications, much of the story is spent delving into police bureaucracy, hierarchy, procedure and corruption. While such detail can be antithetical to what one would expect in a page-turning crime thriller, it sets this book apart. Reviewers agree time invested in the long story is well worth it, claiming readers will find themselves involved, gripped and rewarded. The Guardian calls Six Four a “binge read.”

The Times Literary Supplement writes,“The denouement is surprising, but there are no neat endings to the various strands of this well-written epic tale, which reads beautifully in Jonathan Lloyd-Davies’s translation. Six Four is far more a monument to the idiosyncrasies of Japanese bureaucratic life than it is a simple detective story.”

The Japan Times writes: “Yokoyama’s strength lies in his portrayal of the police: the stifling hierarchy, the politics and duplicity Mikami has to navigate. In true police-procedural fashion Six Four takes its time to reach its conclusion, all the while fleshing out characters who are headed for a denouement that is as original as it is ingenious.”

The Guardian writes: “The plot would grip in any language but, for readers in the west, there is extra fascination in Six Four being not just a police procedural but a guide book to Japan. Some of the local details – such as the cops’ repeated concerns with ‘losing face’ – might have been rejected by an English writer on Japan as too stereotypical. Other material, though, is educationally exotic.”

All of this fascinates me and, given the time, I’d jump into this book for the adventure of it. The Guardian writes: “It’s very different, in tone, narrative and style, from almost anything else out there.”  I don’t often read that – or say that myself – about a book. Six Four is Yokoyama’s sixth novel and the first to be translated into English. It’s not been published by a U.S. publisher, but it’s released in Britain by Quercus, translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies.  You can order it online. Maybe by the time – and if – it arrives in the U.S., I’ll have reading space and be ready for it.

Mystery Writers of America announced the winners of their 2016 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and television published or produced in 2015. Below are their three award-winning adult novels that, by what you’ll read here, might drive you to throw aside all responsibility and read non-stop.

You can get the full list of award-winners, including Best Fact Crime, Best Critical/Biographical, Best Short Story, Best Juvenile, Young Adult, TV Episode Teleplay and others on TheEdgars.com. The award nominees also are listed on the website, providing a wealth of good reading opportunities.

Let Me Die in His FootstepsBest Novel
Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy

Both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times praised Lori Roy’s novel, calling out, among many things, her exceptional use of language and her skill in balancing two narrative timelines – one in 1936 and the other in 1952. The book’s overview description begins: “On a dark Kentucky night in 1952, exactly halfway between her fifteenth and sixteenth birthdays, Annie Holleran crosses into forbidden territory. Everyone knows Hollerans don’t go near Baines, not since Joseph Carl was buried two decades before, but Annie runs through her family’s lavender fields toward the well on the Baines’ place, hoping to see her future in the water. Instead, she finds a body, and Annie’s future becomes inextricably tied with her family’s dark past.” The Washington Post writes: “Although the pacing of Let Me Die is drowsy and its steady infusions of folk wisdom (especially about ripening young females) grow somewhat stale, Roy excels in depicting the menace lurking in the natural world.” Let Me Die in His Footsteps is Roy’s second Edgar – she won the award in the category of Best First Novel by an American Author for Bent Road in 2012.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh NguyenBest First Novel by an American Author
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguygen

Pulitzer Prize winners were announced April 18, including The Sympathizer for fiction. Ten days later, on April 28, Mystery Writers of America announced Viet Thanh Nguygen’s The Sympathizer as the winner of the 2016 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel by an American Author. Viet Thanh Nguygen is associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. His story is narrated by a Vietnamese army captain of divided loyalties, a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist sleeper agent in America after the end of the Vietnam War. From The Guardian’s review of the book:The Sympathizer can be read as a spy novel, a war novel, an immigrant novel, a novel of ideas, a political novel, a campus novel, a novel about the movies, and a novel, yes, about other novels. This overreaching mixture leads to occasional missteps that matter little set against the greater result: a bold, artful and globally minded reimagining of the Vietnam war and its interwoven private and public legacies.” The Sympathizer made it onto many 2015 end-of-the-year “best” lists, highly praised by the critics. Thousands of readers give it a thumbs up on Goodreads.

The Long and Faraway GoneBest Paperback Original
The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney

Both Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly gave stars to Berney’s mystery novel in their forecasts. Publisher’s Weekly wrote: “Edgar Award–finalist Berney (Whiplash River) will raise a lump in the throats of many of his readers with this sorrowful account of two people’s efforts to come to terms with devastating trauma.”  Kirkus concluded its commentary of The Long and Faraway Gone with a compelling comment and also a rare command: “A mystery with a deep, wounded heart. Read it.” From the publisher’s summary: “In the summer of 1986, two tragedies rocked Oklahoma City. Six movie-theater employees were killed in an armed robbery, while one inexplicably survived. Then, a teenage girl vanished from the annual State Fair. Neither crime was ever solved. Twenty-five years later, the reverberations of those unsolved cases quietly echo through survivors’ lives.” Marilyn Stasio in her New York Times review writes: “Berney tells both their stories with supreme sensitivity, exploring ‘the landscape of memory’ that keeps shifting beneath our feet, opening up the graves of all those ghosts we thought we’d buried.”

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