Petrie (Did You Make the Hole in the Shell in the Sea?, 2013, etc.) vividly re-creates the circumstances and aftermath of an early 20th-century murder in this true-crime book.
A cottage on the shore of New Hampshire’s Lake Ossipee seems an unlikely location for a grisly murder, but Petrie notes that there might have been “an unrest on that piece of property that wouldn’t disappear with the passage of time.” She cleverly opens not with the crime itself but with new owners arriving in 1955. Sensing an unearthly chill as they entered the cottage, they never returned to the place alone after their first visit and quickly sold it. Everyone in the gossipy community knew that Florence Small had died in a suspicious house fire on September 28, 1916; her husband, Frederick, was convicted of her murder and hanged. As Petrie chronicles that momentous day as well as Small’s trial and sentencing, she enlivens her story with excellent dialogue and scene-setting. She discusses the case in great detail, often drawing on newspaper stories, but the facts never become too overwhelming for readers. On the day in question, Petrie writes, Small and a friend traveled to Boston to broker insurance sales; that evening, he received a message that his home had burned down with Florence inside. Small acted suitably distraught, but the next day, the circumstances looked too perfect. His satchel contained important documents one wouldn’t want to lose in a fire; he’d taken out a large joint life insurance policy; and he had a history of domestic violence. By gradually revealing these salient pieces of background information, Petrie’s pacey prose puts readers in the same position as the investigators. It’s intriguing to learn how advanced forensic science was at the time: from Florence’s stomach contents, for example, experts could pinpoint the hour of her death, and investigators eventually determined that Small could have used a timed incendiary device to start the fire in his absence.
Exhaustive detail and flawless re-creations make for real suspense in this nonfiction tale.