Following last week’s column about historical crime fiction, it seemed appropriate to tackle another work from that same subgenre for this latest installment of my “rediscovered reads” series. Better still, I wanted to write about one of the profuse “celebrity mysteries” that have transformed real-life figures of yore—everyone from Groucho Marx and Elizabeth I to Elvis Presley, Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe—into amateur sleuths.
Thus it was that I turned to Walter Satterthwait’s Miss Lizzie (1989), which finds alleged murderess Lizzie Borden helping to solve an ax murder.
Did you read about the Rap Sheet’s last “rediscovered read”?
The timing here is ideal. It was 119 years ago this week, on Aug. 4, 1892, that Lizzie Borden, a 32-year-old spinster living in Fall River, Mass., is said to have discovered her father’s bloody corpse sprawled across a settee in the sitting room of their family home. Shortly afterward, the resident maid and a neighbor found the body of Lizzie’s stepmother lying facedown in a guest room upstairs. Both decedents had evidently been struck fatally about the head with a hatchet. Nine days later, Lizzie was arrested for double murder, her supposed motive having been to prevent her father from making a new will that would’ve left most of his wealth to his second wife.
In the decades since, Lizzie Borden has been condemned for this slaughter by a memorable, if inaccurate playground rhyme: “Lizzie Borden took an axe / And gave her mother forty whacks. / And when she saw what she had done, / She gave her father forty-one.” (The combined number of “whacks” was actually 29, rather than 81.) However, the jurors at her trial—which began in June 1893 and drew attention comparable to the 1990s O.J. Simpson trial—ultimately acquitted Lizzie of the killings. She subsequently moved to a house in a more fashionable Fall River neighborhood, and died on June 1, 1927, at age 66, of complications from gall bladder surgery.
Those 1892 homicides and their aftermath have inspired plays, films and novels, some proposing new suspects and startling motives. 1984, for instance, brought the release of Lizzie, a novel by Evan Hunter—more familiar to mystery readers as “Ed McBain”—that suggested Lizzie Borden killed her stepmother in anger over a lesbian relationship, then did in her father to prevent his exposing her offense.
Satterthwait, creator of the Joshua Croft private eye series (Accustomed to the Dark) and the Phil Beaumont/Jane Turner historical mysteries (Cavalcade), contributes no such extraordinary theories to the known record. Instead, in Miss Lizzie, he presents a solid, sometimes humorous and altogether charming whodunit that pairs a precocious 13-year-old aspiring detective with the notorious Lizzie in a tale of distrust, death and other dire consequences on the New England coast.
This story takes place in 1921, as the United States relishes some giddy relief in the wake of World War I and embarks on its “noble experiment,” Prohibition. Together with her stockbroker father, her stepmother and her elder brother, William, young Amanda Burton has escaped a sweltering Boston summer for a cottage hugging the Atlantic shore. Their nearest neighbor is Lizbeth A. Borden, now a middle-aged woman habitually clad in mourning black, who befriends Amanda and, to pass the time, instructs her in the sideshow legerdemain of card tricks. The girl’s embittered, platitude-spouting stepmother is none too pleased with her new acquaintanceship; like so many other Americans, she’s convinced that Lizzie was guilty as charged (“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” she spouts). But the headstrong Amanda pays her cautions no heed.
Which is good, because on the morning Amanda wakes from a peaceful nap to find her stepmother’s head split open with a hatchet, she at least has Lizzie to run to for help. The local cops immediately see Lizzie’s hand behind the carnage, based solely on the similarities between this incident and the atrocities of 1892. But Lizzie, well off as a result of her father’s accelerated demise, puts her wealth toward Amanda’s cause, employing an attorney of unsuspected depths and a rough-and-tumble Pinkerton agent to suss out this case’s genuine perpetrator. It will be up to them, as well as Lizzie in her role as a dark-edged Miss Marple, to defend William, and later Amanda’s father, from accusations of criminal intent and protect the girl from a shadowy presence dogging her every move.
Satterthwait reels a few too many red herrings into his plot, and several twists threaten to undercut credibility. However, he brings Lizzie Borden, with her closet cigar habit and steely resilience, to full-dimensioned life, and does an exceptional job of getting inside the young head—and blessedly naïve heart—of Amanda Burton. He’s skillful at portraying an ostensibly serene, early 20th-century town struggling to conceal racism and myriad petty jealousies beneath its prim skirts. And he delivers a climax perfectly choreographed in its horror.
Two years after Miss Lizzie’s release, the author brought out another celebrity mystery, Wilde West, featuring English writer Oscar Wilde as a garrulous gumshoe pursuing a killer of prostitutes across America’s frontier. Based on my delight in reading this first book, I’ll just have to saddle up for the second.