Big Summer

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Jennifer Weiner’s latest novel, Big Summer, in exchange for an honest review.

Drue Cavanaugh appears to have it all. She’s rich, beautiful, and successful. However, looks can be deceiving, and happiness is something that has always eluded Drue. Drue is magnetic and charming, which draws people to her, but she also has a ruthless, mean streak, which destroys her friendships.

Drue’s childhood friend, Daphne Berg, was a target of Drue’s cruelty, and after a particularly painful incident, they haven’t spoken in six years. Daphne is surprised when Drue contacts her, begging Daphne to be her maid of honor for her upcoming lavish Cape Cod wedding. Drue seems sincere in her desire to fix their friendship, but there is another piece of the puzzle. Daphne is a rising social media star and Drue pitches that Daphne can use the wedding to promote herself. Many aspects of the wedding are being promoted on social media and companies have donated products for the bride and groom to showcase.

Daphne agrees, and she is swept back into Drue’s glamorous world. On the night of the rehearsal dinner, Daphne meets a handsome man and has a steamy one-night stand. The next morning, the man is gone, and Drue is found dead in a nearby hot tub. Daphne is a suspect, and she works to solve the mystery of both Drue’s murder and the identity of her mystery man.

I’ve read many of Weiner’s previous novels, and I’m a fan. I was excited to read Big Summer, but I must confess that this was a miss for me. The first third of the story is strong; setting up the history and dynamic between Drue and Daphne. Daphne is a charming character, especially as we meet her after she has made a big transformation in her life. She is happy and on the path to success when Drue’s reappearance threatens her. Drue’s sway over people is captivating. I found my interest crumbling after Drue died and the story shifts to a mystery.

I didn’t anticipate the reveal of the murderer, yet it wasn’t a satisfying twist. Weiner sets Drue up as someone who has wronged many people and therefore, her murderer could be anyone. Daphne, and her roommate Darshi, set-off to solve the various mysteries. The mystery aspect of the novel has a lot of convenient situations and tenuous links. I didn’t find it plausible and my interest waned. Mysteries are a departure for Weiner, and I applaud her for trying something new, but it didn’t gel.

A lovely aspect of the story was the relationship between Daphne and her parents, especially her father. Daphne and her father have a Sunday tradition of trying different restaurants and cuisines. In a flashback scene, Drue joins them one Sunday. Drue’s parents have held her at a distance, and being included on this Sunday outing was an emotional experience for Drue. Daphne is made aware that the love from her parents and their support is something that money can’t buy.

Big Summer has beautiful themes of the ability to change and not being defined by your past. Daphne has insecurities due to her weight, but when she allows herself to let go of her worries, she finds acceptance, including a new boyfriend, Nick. Speaking of Nick, their romance is passionate and sexy. I may have been blushing!

Big Summer reminds us that not everything on social media is how it appears, both what is shared and what is kept private. People have the ability to change, even if we are not noticing their changes. I’m a fan of Weiner and will certainly read her future novels, but Big Summer was enough of a miss for me, that I can’t recommend it. The strengths in Big Summer are the characters and themes, but the overarching plot is messy.

 

The Companions

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Thank You to Gallery/Scout Press for providing me with a copy of Katie M. Flynn’s novel, The Companions, in exchange for an honest review.

In the near-future the world has suffered a deadly pandemic that has resulted in years of quarantine. Scientist have developed a way to transfer human souls into robots, allowing humans a way to become immortal, but the catch is they are property of the Metis Corporation. The Metis Corporation leases the robots, referred to as “Companions” to other humans. Sometimes those who take on the lease are the family members of the companion and sometimes, when a family member is unwilling or cannot afford the lease, the companions are sent out to be workers. The companions not only provide companionship to the lonely who are quarantined, but they can perform tasks without fear of catching the virus.

Lilac has been leased by a family to provide companionship to their young daughter. Although Lilac only has vague memories of her human life, she begins to recall certain events and with some internet sleuthing, she learns that she had been murdered as a teenager. It is now decades later and she wants to find her murderer to seek revenge, before that person dies.

The Companions offers an intriguing premise and brings up plenty of ethical issues. Would you be willing to lease your soul to a corporation in exchange for a longer life? What obligations does that company have to provide for your care? What happens when you out live those you knew in real life? Is a robot with a semi-human soul still human? The idea for The Companions caught my attention immediately. It reminded me of the series Black Mirror.

Unfortunately, the actual plot failed to hold my interest. It had strong moments, but I never felt connected to the characters. There are many characters and plots, so many that they become muddled. The plots do intersect, but I wasn’t satisfied. I think it would have worked better as a series of short stories based in the post-pandemic story world, each dealing with the various implications of having companions.

The Companions will benefit from buzz due to its eerie timing. It was published the first week in March, right as much of the world was about to be locked down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Obviously, there is no way that Flynn could have realized this when she wrote The Companions, but many of her ideas about how a lock down would feel and heaviness of it all, are spot on. Our current world situation added to my discomfort and sense of unease, that I likely would not have felt if I had read The Companions at any other time.

 

All That’s Bright and Gone

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Thank you to Crooked Lane Books for providing me with a copy of Eliza Nellums’ novel, All That’s Bright and Gone, in exchange for an honest review.

Six-year old Aoife has recently witnessed her mother have a mental break-down at a shopping mall and is currently being cared for by her Uncle Donny, while her mother is recovering in a hospital. While living with her uncle, she tries to search for clues regarding the mystery surrounding her older brother, Theo. Her mother talks about Theo as though he is still alive, but Aoife is sure that he has been murdered. To add to Aoife’s confusion, her mother’s boyfriend has started coming around and he claims to be Aoife’s real father. Aoife attempts to navigate her muddled world with the help of her imaginary friend, Teddy, and her eight-year-old neighbor who is an amateur sleuth.

Nellums has created a vibrant and winning protagonist in Aoife. I think it is hard to craft a believable young child protagonist, but Nellum has nailed it, balancing Aoife’s precociousness with her innocence. Also balanced is the amount of truth that we know from the adults in Aoife’s world, allowing the reader insight to her reality vs. her assumptions. It is a compelling look at a child caught in the middle of adult issues.

Teddy makes the reader wonder if Aoife is headed down the same path toward mental illness as her mother or if an imaginary friend is simply a childhood rite of passage. Teddy resembles a teddy bear and he urges Aoife to act in ways that direct her toward danger. The inclusion of Teddy worked well to make me think that Aoife could be an unreliable narrator, but the uncertainty of it kept me on fence, adding to the mystery of the story.

I throughly enjoyed All That’s Bright and Gone. I truly had no idea where the story was headed, but was gripped from the start. I was hooked by the feeling of uncertainty and that Aoife might always be in danger. There is a great scene with a elderly neighbor that had me really worried for Aoife. Nellums never allows the tension to drop, which keeps the pacing tight and makes All That’s Bright and Gone a quick read.

Nellums is a gift writer with regard to both prose and plot. All That’s Bright and Gone is her debut novel and I’m looking forward to reading her future works.

 

The Family Upstairs

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Lisa Jewell’s latest novel, The Family Upstairs, in exchange for an honest review.

Libby Jones is living an ordinary life in London: she has a small flat, is looking for love, and works as a high-end kitchen designer. Everything is life as normal, until a bombshell is dropped on Libby twenty-fifth birthday. She is contacted by a solicitor, who informs her that her birth parents, whom she knows nothing about, set her up with a trust fund. The contents of the trust is a multi-million pound home in the posh Chelsea neighborhood. This home has been locked up for decades, ever since Libby’s parents were discovered dead with a third mystery man. Libby’s older brother and sister were never found, yet Libby was discovered in the mansion with the bodies, safe in her crib.

In trying to understand what happened to her biological family, Libby falls down a rabbit hole, eventually leading her to a news article written by Miller Roe. Miller spent years trying to uncover the truth and his obsession with the case cost him his marriage. His curiosity is rekindled when Libby contacts him and he agrees to work with her. The plot thickens when they realized that someone has been breaking into the Chelsea mansion.

The Family Upstairs is told from three alternating perspectives: Libby, Henry (Libby’s older brother), and Lucy, a single-mom who is desperately trying to make a life for her kids, while working as a street performer in France. In Henry’s narrative, we learn of life in the Chelsea house prior to Libby’s birth and how their parents transitioned from rich socialites to recluses who died next to a strange man, with most of their possessions missing.

As this is a mystery, I don’t want to give away any of the plot twists. The Family Upstairs is addictive and if I didn’t have other responsibilities, I easily would have read it in a single day, but as it was, it stretched into two. I’ve read several of Jewell’s books and she is brilliant at crafting quick-paced mysteries with unexpected twists. She writes characters that I care about and puts them in dangerous situations. I was especially worried for Lucy, who needs the help of her abusive ex-husband and is forced to be alone with him in his house. It is a tense situation!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the mansion. The Chelsea mansion is just as big of a character, as any of the humans in the story. Not only was it the site of multiple deaths, unsolved deaths, but it has sat abandoned for twenty-five years, leaving it dusty and in disrepair. Most of the belongings are long-gone, but Libby discovers small objects that remain, like bottles or old food. She also finds a boy’s name, Phin, carved into cabinets and drawers. The house creaks and moans when it moves. It’s is the quintessential haunted-house and a place that feels uncomfortable every time Libby enters it. Jewell teases out the truth of the house and the conclusion is shocking.

Go read The Family Upstairs. I finished it last night and I have already texted many friends to recommend it. Especially as we are all stuck indoors due to Coronavirus, this is a much needed escapist read. Jewell is a fabulous writer and I recommend all of her books.

 

The Wolf Wants In

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Laura McHugh’s novel, The Wolf Wants In, in exchange for an honest review.

Sadie Keller’s brother has died and although the case has been closed, she is convinced that her former sister-in-law, a member of the infamous Pettit clan, is hiding the truth. The Pettit’s are well known in rural Kansas for drug running and other criminal behavior. The situation escalates when the body of a local child is found in the woods. Sadie is an old friend of the child’s mother and she fears that the Pettit’s could be involved. Eighteen-year-old Henley Pettit is caught in the crosshairs of the family business. Henley desperately wants to get out of town and live a normal life, but she is also compelled to guard the Pettit’s secrets.

McHugh is a great suspense and mystery writer. I throughly enjoyed The Wolf Wants In. It’s a tension filled novel with strong characters and compelling twists. My favorite aspect of the work is the setting. Although a work of fiction, it isn’t difficult to imagine that this story could have taken place in many rural towns in America. The story speaks to the opioid epidemic and the way addiction fall-out impacts so many lives. This is a timely subject and one that McHugh tackles with care.

The characters have heavy dilemmas, especially Henley who has to make some irrevocable and dangerous decisions at a young age. The tension is thick throughout, making The Wolf Wants In, a page-turner.

 

The Paper Wasp

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Thank you to Grove Atlantic for providing me with Lauren Acampora’s novel, The Paper Wasp, in exchange for an honest review.

Abby and Elise were childhood best friends raised in a small town in Michigan. They began to grow apart when as a teenager, Elise became involved in acting and her career took off.

Flash-Forward to their late 20’s: Elise is an actress living in Hollywood, while Abby is stuck in their small town, a college dropout. She is working retail and dreaming of a career in the film industry. Abby obsesses over Elise, saving every magazine article that features her former friend. The two women reconnect, when they both attend their high school reunion. Following the reunion, Abby decides to run off to Hollywood, showing up on Elise’s doorstep. Elise, takes Abby in for an extended stay, treating Abby to a taste of her lavish lifestyle. Soon, the boundaries of their relationship are blurred, when Abby accepts a job being Elise’s personal assistant. The situation is further strained by Abby’s growing ambition, a ticking time-bomb that is ready to explode.

I absolutely loved The Paper Wasp. Acampora is a masterful writer, combing gorgeous prose with complex characters. I could not put The Paper Wasp down and plowed through it in a single afternoon.

I’m a Los Angeles native and I found the way that Acampora captured the city to be perfect. There is a wonderful moment where Elise drives Abby through Hollywood for the first time, noting its lackluster, dingy atmosphere, which is a strong contrast both Abby’s perceived image of Hollywood and to Elise’s glamorous lifestyle. Elise takes meditation classes at an exclusive institute and although I’m not sure of a real-life counterpart, it is certainly something that exists in Los Angeles. It has strange, ethereal quality, but is also is a bit of a cult. I could easily imagine the type of fellow Angeleno’s, not only celebrities, who would have a membership to this type of club. One of the more memorable aspects of the institution, is their crazy costume parties, where members come dressed as images from their dreams. It’s strange and magical, with a hint of a nightmarish quality; akin to a scene from Alice in Wonderland.

There is another contrast, when Abby travels back to Michigan to see her sister. Her sister is a drug addict, who has recently had a baby daughter. Abby visits her sister and niece, seeing that they live in a filthy trailer barely able to make ends meet. Abby’s heart tells her to kidnap her niece and save her from the poverty and neglect, but she can’t act on it.

Abby’s obsession with Elise creates a tension throughout the story. In the start, she appears to be a bit of a stalker, but then as we see the dynamic between the two women, it is clearer that Abby is more concerned with the lack of direction that her life has taken. She is envious of Elise, who doesn’t seem to deserve her lucky breaks. Rather than wishing to be Elise, Abby thinks that she is more deserving or at least, if she were to have a good opportunity, she would know how to make the most of it. We learn that Abby has been carrying around a terrible secret that is making her more motivate to take risks in life. Abby becomes emboldened throughout the story, making her actions increasing erratic, creating a sense of danger.

When Abby is confronted with the real Elise, not the Elise from the magazine articles, she realizes that her friend lacks self-confidence. Elise lives a messy life. This sets up a social commentary on how we view celebrity, or even ordinary people, via carefully curated social media accounts. Abby couldn’t imagine the real Elise, because she was so caught-up in the fake, media version. Not only that, Abby spent a decade so hyper-focused on this fake Elise, that when she was confronted with the truth, her world cracked open.

The Paper Wasp is my current favorite read of 2019. I was hooked from the first page and cannot wait to read Acampora’s collection of short stories, The Wonder Garden. She is such a talented writer.

Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories

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On a recent visit to Powell’s Books in Portland, I was perusing the crime/mystery section and Korean author, Young-Ha Kim’s short story collection, Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories, caught my eye. I like to go opposite with my reading seasons, disturbing in the summer, and light-hearted in the winter. You can’t feel too dark when you’re sunbathing with a Mai Tai in one hand and crime novel in the other!

The collection begins with the title story, Diary of a Murderer. This is the longest story in the collection and it was my favorite for its strong narrative voice and intriguing premise. It follows a former serial killer, who has gotten away with his crimes, but now has Alzheimers. He is cognizant enough of his disease to worry that he might accidentally reveal himself, yet far gone enough to be living in a fantasy world, where he believes that his daughter’s new boyfriend is a fellow serial killer. His daughter is also a secret that he keeps, as he adopted the girl when she was a child, kidnapping her after killing her mother. His unreliable memory forces him to walk on egg shells. This serial killer who has caused so many people fear, now fears himself. It’s a great story idea and Kim does a fantastic job at keeping the tension. I felt both disgust and empathy towards the main character. He is a great anti-hero.

The second story in the collection is called, The Origin of Life. This story details a love triangle, where a woman in an abusive relationship manipulates her childhood friend to help her. I felt this was the weakest story in the collection, although Kim’s writing is so skilled, that it still kept my interest.

Missing Child explores the idea of a kidnapped child being returned to his parents after many years. The son is now a preteen and he is not the boy that his parents imagined that he would become. Would he have been like this all along? Or did the nurture part of the upbringing that he had with his kidnapper, over take the nature, the biology from his parents? What happens when your missing child is returned and it is not the happy occasion that you imagined? This story was fascinating and intensely emotional. The lives of the characters are utterly destroyed from one incident. The theme of child abduction is also carried over from Diary of a Murder, making these two stories solid companion pieces.

The last story is The Writer, about a novelist with mental health issues. The novelist is an unreliable narrator who is spiraling out of control, imagining a torrid relationship with the ex-wife of his would-be publisher. This is also a great companion to the title story, as both deal with unreliable narrators and mental health.

Kim is a new-to-me writer discovery. I enjoyed the intensity of his stories and surprising story arcs. He crafts vivid, emotionally wrought characters that I will not soon forget. I highly recommend Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories.

The Royal Secret

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Lucinda Riley’s novel, The Royal Secret, in exchange for an honest review.

Reporter Joanna Haslam is tired of being assigned puff-pieces, but her life changes when she is assigned to cover the funeral of veteran actor, Sir James Harrison. At the funeral, she meets a mysterious elderly woman, that sends Joanna on the path to uncovering a decades old scandal involving England’s royal family. As Joanna rushes to solve the mystery, she realizes that there are people willing to kill to keep their secrets hidden.

Riley’s The Royal Secret was actually written twenty years ago ( although she has made updates to this current version) and it was deemed so scandalous, that many booksellers in the UK would not carry it or promote it. This was the info that I received that enticed me to sign up for an Ark of The Royal Secret. It set my expectations high and I have to admit that The Royal Secret did not meet those expectations. I’m not quite sure why it was so shocking or scandalous. I am in my early forties, so I can easily remember back a few decades and it’s hard to imagine that anything in this story would have been reason for refusing to sell the book. That said, I live in the United States, not England, so I am viewing the story through a different cultural lens. Also, Riley’s book was originally published shortly after the death of Lady Diana, so perhaps that may have created a sensitivity regarding anything written about the royal family, fictional or otherwise. Riley’s royal family is completely fictional and she does not use the names of any actual monarchs. If there is any similarities between actual monarchs and her characters, I did not notice.

The Royal Secret is suspenseful from start to finish. It is filled with twists and turns, many of which I could not have anticipated. If anything, it was a bit much with all of the plot twists, especially in the last quarter of the story. The pacing really ramps up to a frenzy and I was overwhelmed with the speed of the information.

The characters are the best part of the story. I especially liked the romantic tension between Zoe Harrison, the granddaughter of Sir James Harrison, and her bodyguard, Simon. Zoe is in a relationship and Simon needs to maintain professionalism, yet there is a beautiful undercurrent of longing and passion between these two characters.

There is a second and equal love story thread between Joanna and Zoe’s brother, Marcus. This romance lacked the sweetness and passion of Zoe and Simon. I felt like Joanna and Marcus were a fling that carried on past its expiration date, yet as Joanna is our heroine, we readers should be engaged in her romantic plot line. I liked Joanna as a plucky reporter, however my primary emotional connection was with Zoe and Simon.

The story had too many coincidences to make it gel. For example, Joanna happens to be best friends with Simon, who happens to be placed on a top-secret assignment guarding Zoe. Through her investigation, Zoe develops a relationship with Marcus and is then introduced to Joanna, which is how she discovers that Simon is an agent; a big secret that she never knew about her best friend. Joanna and Marcus get intwined in this mystery in totally different ways, a mystery that would never have come to light if Joanna hadn’t happened to be sitting next to the elderly woman at the funeral. To push this further, this elderly woman, knowing that she is ill, decides to tell Joanna her biggest secret, but in a way that is still shrouded in mystery, putting Joanna in both professional and mortal jeopardy. Without giving away any major plot twists, The Royal Secret, is full of these chance encounters and people who happened to be in the right place, at the right time. (or the wrong place, at the wrong time) For a story that is built on imminent danger, several aspects of the story happened too conveniently.

I enjoyed the primary setting in the 1990’s and appreciated how the technology of the era was worked into the story. It would have played out very differently, if it had been set now. I also liked the way the story spanned several decades, playing with societal norms of different eras. Riley does a wonderful job of setting the scene and writing atmospheric descriptions.

Overall, The Royal Secret was not my cup of tea and I would not recommend it. This was my first time reading Riley and I would be inclined to seek out her other novels. I enjoyed her writing, but not the general plot of this particular story.

Pure Land

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One of my favorite travel souvenirs is to purchase a book in a local independent bookstore. While on our Arizona road trip, I visited the adorable Bright Side Bookshop in Flagstaff, where an awesome bookseller recommended local author Annette McGivney’s Pure Land.

In Pure Land, McGivney expands on her 2007 article that she wrote for Backpacker, that explored the brutal murder of a Japanese woman, Tomomi Hanamure, who was stabbed while hiking in the Grand Canyon. Pure Land is part memoir, part social commentary, and part true crime.

As McGivney was researching the story, she began to experience triggers from her own abusive childhood and this article took on a greater meaning. McGivney flew to Japan and became close to Hanamure’s family, learning that the woman had been abandoned by her mother at a young age and was raised by a single father. Hanamure always felt a pull towards the United States, specifically the National Parks of the South West and Native American culture. Hanamure was killed by Randy Wescogame, an eighteen year old meth addict living on the Havasupai reservation, who also had a history of childhood abandonment and abuse.

“Pure Land” refers to the Buddhist belief of the ultimate afterlife, the place where a person who has learned everything from earth, through multiple reincarnations, will finally go to rest. Hanamure comes from a Buddhist background and her family prays that she has made it to Pure Land to find peace. However, it also takes on a different meaning with McGivney’s book, as we can imagine that Hanamure and others find their own Pure Land when they are at peace in nature. Perhaps even Wescogame is on his way to Pure Land, while healing in prison, or maybe McGivney is finding it, as she moves forward from her childhood trauma.

Pure Land is a powerhouse. I could not put it down. The story is heartbreaking, but McGivney explores it with compassion and care. I was fascinated with the way that Hanamure felt drawn to a foreign culture, so much so that she worked minimum wage jobs to just save enough to meet her travel expenses. Her entire focus was on her trips to the United States. Her passion for the United States was not shared with her family and friends, yet she was not deterred. By all accounts, she also came across as an unusual soul by those who encountered her during her travels, yet she seemed to own this aspect of her life. It’s crushing to think that someone could have so much love for a land and its people, yet it led to her violent and untimely death.

Pure Land also explores the devastating and complex history of Native Americans and their treatment by the United States government. Through centuries of systematic racism, many tribe members that maintain their autonomy of tribal lands are facing a crisis with poverty, violence, and addiction. McGivney looks at the history of how this has happened and specifically how this life has impacted the Havasupai. While she certainly doesn’t forgive Wescogame’s crime, she does explore his life within the context of living in a tribe that has experienced incredible hardships. I was most interested in reading about the founding of the National Parks. The National Parks are the treasures of the United States and I think most citizens ( and foreign visitors) hold them in the highest regard, but the dark side of the history of the parks includes the displacement of Native tribes, forcing them from their ancestral lands.

McGivney gets specific with regard to the Havasupai, who now have a deeply impoverished reservation on a small piece of land in the Grand Canyon. Crossing through their land is the only way to access one of the most stunning parts of the canyon, a place where Hanamure was headed when she was murdered. The Havasupai tribe has made efforts to attract tourists, including building a small, heavily fortified lodge and offering guides. However, the problems that exist on the reservation make this a very dangerous area and not everyone is welcoming or profiting off of the tourists.

Although we think of National Parks as a places that should be open to all, this particular section of the Canyon is controlled by the Havasupai. It is their land. They have little with regard to ways of making an income and whether they want to or not, allowing tourists brings in much needed revenue. Their willingness to allow tourists to pass through reeks of slum tourism, with the tourists not just passing through on their hike, but also gawking at the shocking poverty on the reservation. The Havasupai that are able to make a living off of the tourists are doing the best with what they have, however reading this made my stomach hurt. The only reason that they are in this situation is because they were forced to give up their lands and forced to accept a rotten deal, yet now they are again pressured into allowing tourists to traipse through their home. I imagine that if they did not allow the tourists to pass, that the government would find a way to intervene on the tourists behalf. It’s a terrible situation.

Pure land is an important read from a historical and societal perspective. McGivney’s writing is heart breaking and haunting. I can’t imagine that I will ever forget this book.

Murder by the Book

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In Murder by the Book, Claire Harman explores a horrific Victorian England crime that captivated the country. In 1840, Lord William Russell, a well-to-do senior citizen, was found nearly decapitated in his bed at his London residence. The hunt for the murderer focused heavily on Russell’s servants and finally yielded a confession from his valet, a Swiss national named Francois Benjamin Courvoisier. Courvoisier admitted guilt, but his testimony was often conflicting and although he was ultimately sent to the gallows for the crime, there has been doubt as to whether or not he was the actual murderer, or if so, did he have an accomplice?

Harman’s book doesn’t only focus on the murder, but also puts the crime in context of other events during the era. Much as there is a current trend for blaming video games, music, and movies for violence in our society, there was a similar situation occurring in Victorian England. In the mid 1800’s, people were captivated by crime novels. There was a popular book genre called the “Newgate Novel.” Named for the infamous Newgate prison ( where Courvoisier was held and hung), the novels romanticized criminals.

In particular, there was one Newgate Novel that rose to controversy with the murder of Russell: Jack Sheppard. Written by William Harrison Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard, is the true crime tale that Courvoisier claims gave him the idea to murder Russell. Jack Sheppard was a huge part of pop-culture, which beyond the book, also was told through multiple stage plays, may of which were an inexpensive form of entertainment that all segments of society could enjoy and did so, by seeing the productions multiple times. The idea of a servant turning on their employees, especially in such a brutal fashion, was a panic at the time and led to even more criticism of Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Novel genre.

Other famous authors, like Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, closely followed the Courvoisier trial. Dickens in particular became a strong opponent of public hangings, his thought being that the damage done by the public witnessing an execution, is greater than its act as a deterrent against criminal behavior. He witnessed Courvoisier’s execution and used his writings to speak out against the act. The last public hanging in the United Kingdom would occur just a few decades later. The way Harman describes the festival atmosphere around the execution is chilling.

A very interesting fact that Harman mentions is that a doctor wrote to Scotland Yard with an idea that finger prints might be used to identify the true murderer. This was before finger printing was used and the idea was dismissed, not be used until fifty years later. Harman mentions that had finger printing had been around, other Victorian era crimes, such as Jack the Ripper, might have been solved.

Murder by the Book took me about 1/3 to really feel invested in the story, but as soon as I reached that point, I couldn’t put it down. The crime is shocking, but the real fascinating element is how the crime informed public debate over art and social policy, such as executions. Violence has always been part of culture and art has always included violence, making this shocking case from 1840, just as relevant in today’s conversation. Does glorifying violence lead to violence? I don’t advocate censorship or banning art, but somewhere in all of this there does seem to be a problem that has been occurring for generations. I think mental health is likely the missing puzzle piece and by his own admittance, Courvoisier claimed to have been in a rage. At the time Phrenology, the pseudoscience of studying skull shapes to analyze mental traits, was all the rage. Of course now, Phrenology is not only disproven, but also associated with racism and the goal of proving superiority with certain races. However, it is interesting to note that even if the Victorians were on the wrong track with Phrenology, the idea of exploring mental imbalance and its association with violent behavior was of importance.

Harman’s book leaves the reader with much to consider and would be a great pick for book clubs or classrooms. It’s great for true crime enthusiasts and history buffs, as well for lovers of Victorian England authors. Murder by the Book is a compelling read for people who can handle the gory details!