The celebrated Thompson-Bywaters murder case of 1922 inspires still another fictional rendering, this one unusually sensitive and judicious.
Ever since she crashed her car and landed her son Felix in the hospital, Alma Rattenbury’s much older husband Rats has forbidden her to drive. So what more natural than that they should retain a chauffeur? Percy Stoner, 17, can barely drive, but he’s deferential and good-looking, and one night Alma takes him to bed. Though Rats’s banishment from Alma’s bedroom should make their secret easy to keep, their bliss quickly proves expensive. First, Percy, goaded by Rats’s condescension, taunts Rats with his knowledge that the distinguished architect left Canada for Bournemouth because he was accused of fraud—knowledge he could have acquired only from Alma. Then, after refusing comfort to both men, each of whom insists she take his side, Alma realizes she’s pregnant. Margolin, author of a true-crime study of the Snyder-Gray case (Murderess! The Chilling True Story of the Most Infamous Woman Ever Electrocuted, not reviewed), traces each stage of the adulterous couple’s eventual descent into murder with surgical precision; his account of Alma’s turbulent emotions as she seeks a back-alley abortionist in 1934 is harrowing. Only in its final stages does the tale disintegrate along with its beleaguered heroine.
Margolin never moves outside Alma’s consciousness. Yet she’s so scrupulous in acknowledging every divided motive that the result is a tour de force of understanding and compassion.