Prolific true-crime writer Evans (Slaughter on a Snowy Morn: A Tale of Murder, Corruption, and the Death Penalty Case that Shocked America, 2012, etc.) examines the murder trial of Chilean heiress Blanca de Saulles (“The Flower of the Andes”) in a narrative reminiscent of the background melodramas of The Great Gatsby or the musical Chicago.
“From an early age,” writes the author, “Blanca knew the power of her personal magnetism and her place in the world.” Yet, she miscalculated by marrying Jack de Saulles, a Yale football hero (and Broadway rake)–turned–fortune hunter: “de Saulles ran through money like air.” The marriage quickly soured, and although they agreed to share custody of their young son upon divorcing, this proved the fatal flash point: Blanca shot Jack in August 1917 at his Long Island summer home. What seemed a sure murder conviction fell apart due to now-familiar complications: a chaotic media circus, a showboating, high-end defense attorney and a prim prosecutor outmatched by the wealthy defendant’s resources. Crucially, Evans argues that there existed an “unwritten rule” that certain female defendants could not be convicted of murder, as patriarchal juries seemed swayed by sheer femininity: “[O]nce again a wealthy female defendant had escaped the electric chair for killing her husband. Such homicides were now becoming a national epidemic.” Evans presents this sordid narrative in such brisk, entertaining fashion that readers may not notice his own bait-and-switch: Although the impetuous immigrant seducer later known as Rudolph Valentino did testify to de Saulles’ infidelity during the divorce trial and may have been set up for a vice charge in its aftermath, he does not actually appear during the more sensational murder trial.
A well-researched tale of a distant-seeming era and crime, echoing our own time’s obsession with celebrity transgression and capacity for justifying violence.