Tag Archives: non fiction

The Duchess Countess: Catherine Ostler

Catherine Ostler’s non fiction book The Duchess Countess is the strange story of Elizabeth Chudleigh (1721-1788), an 18th century woman who had looks, ambition and opportunity, but who had the bad fortune to bet on the wrong pony. Reading the book, I couldn’t help but think that Elizabeth’s life repeatedly took bad turns. Our lives are shaped by the times we live in, but in Elizabeth’s case, she was constrained by the standards of her time.

Elizabeth’s father was lieutenant governor of the Royal hospital but his sudden early demise found his widow and his two children, Elizabeth and her brother, Thomas tossed out of their home with scanty means. Thomas and Elizabeth’s uncle, Sir George Chudleigh married an heiress, but when he died, Thomas was set to inherit the baronetcy and “much of the family estate.” It looked as though fortune had turned in their favour, but then Thomas was killed in battle at age 22. Back to no prospects for Elizabeth.

Thanks to the influence of a family friend, William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath, Elizabeth became a maid-of-honour to Augusta, wife of Frederick heir to George II. This was “the most glamourous position available to a single girl of Elizabeth’s background.” Elizabeth seemed made for the role; she was fashionable, witty, stylish and according to one report, “a vixen.” The problem was that being a maid-of-honour wasn’t an end in itself–it was essentially a stepping stone. Many maids-of-honour married very well, but Elizabeth, although beautiful was penniless. Plus the prince’s household was at odds with King George II’s household and the two were sharply divided into factions. Being a maid-of-honour was expensive. Elizabeth was paid 200 pounds a year, yet details here reveal that some women spent 100 pounds on a single dress. The pressure was on for Elizabeth, who was essentially dependent on her own mental resources, to find a rich husband. At first this seemed to be achieved when Elizabeth met James Hamilton, Duke of Hamilton and they fell in love, Hamilton was a “chaotic figure who liked dogs hunting, women and drink.” They were “secret lovers, perhaps even privately engaged,” but Hamilton sailed off on his Grand Tour without making a declaration.

And it’s here that the story gets weird. Elizabeth and her Aunt Ann retreated to Hampshire where she met Augustus Hervey. They married secretly and a short while later, he, in the navy, sailed off. In the eyes of the world, Elizabeth was a single woman when she returned to court and her scandalous life. She certainly carried on as if she were a single woman. Hervey, in the meantime, had a decent naval career and gained a reputation as a libertine. In time he returned to England and it’s almost as though Hervey and Elizabeth forgot they had ever been married–although some shreds of jealousy remained and Hervey paid some of Elizabeth’s substantial debts.

Years rolled on, and Elizabeth fell in love with Evelyn Pierrepoint, Duke of Kingston, an incredibly wealthy man who did not have the best of health but who adored Elizabeth. Now in middle age, heavily in debt, Elizabeth needed to marry. But wait wasn’t she already married? Hervey, about to become Earl, wanted a divorce, but Elizabeth claimed they were never married in the first place. Only a man could sue for divorce.

Elizabeth did not want a divorce, for several reasons. First, her adultery would have to be proved, which required an action for “crim.con” as it was known in order to be successful; then a private act of parliament would have to be obtained. For Parliament to dissolve the marriage there would therefore have to be a shameful parade of marital history. Allegations of adultery and deceit would be publicly humiliating, and on a practical note, if she accepted that she was married, her property belonged to Hervey, not her. As if that was not enough, it was unclear whether the Duke of Kingston would be willing to marry a divorcee with her reputation in shreds. Even Elizabeth was not that much of a risk taker.

Elizabeth was in the uncomfortable position of juggling scandal, debt, forgery and Time with her desire to marry the Duke. After a grimy court case, Elizabeth, aided by forgery, was declared not married, so she married the Duke. He died leaving Elizabeth all his money. By that time, Hervey was Earl of Bristol, which made Elizabeth, the countess of Bristol. The Duke’s family leveled the charge of bigamy against Elizabeth, and so there was another trial. This is such an odd story, and there’s the sense that had the stars been kinder, Elizabeth’s fate would have been different. Her life was punctuated by the early deaths of her brother and father, a strange betrayal by her aunt, the death of a child by Hervey, marriage to two wealthy men and public opinion cruelly against her. I enjoyed the all the details regarding the cost of her clothing etc, but I never felt as though I got into Elizabeth’s head. The author mentioned a few times that Elizabeth could be borderline personality disorder. I am not a psychiatrist/psychologist but I dismissed that label as we really cannot appreciate the pressures Elizabeth, with a short shelf life, was under to nail a man, permanently.

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A Taste for Poison: Eleven Deadly Molecules and the Killers Who Used Them: Neil Bradbury Ph.D

I picked up Neil Bradbury’s A Taste For Poison due to my interest in crime; while murder is never good, murder by poison seems particularly cold. The book’s emphasis is the history of poisons, their delivery, how they work on the body, and the tell-tale signs they leave behind. Chapters covers each of these poisons: insulin, atropine, strychnine, Aconite, Ricin, Digoxin, Cyanide, Potassium, Polonium, Arsenic and Chlorine, and chapters include poison cases and detail the sometimes limited technology available at the time. The author points out that murder by poisoning can’t be “spur-of-the-moment,” and it

requires planning and a knowledge of the victim’s habits. It requires consideration of how the poison will be administered. Some poisons can kill within minutes; others can be given slowly over time, gradually accumulating in the body but still leading inexorably to the victim’s death.”

The intro explains that the book is “not a catalog of poisoners and their victims, but rather explores the nature of poisons and how they affect the body at the molecular, cellular and physiological levels.” This results in a unique book which is a mixture of chemistry, history and crime. The author explains that poison can be “delivered” through 4 “routes”: ingestion, respiration, absorption or injection. I’d never quite heard the subject of poison broken down with this specific simplicity, and I immediately began thinking of various poisonings and how they slot into the 4 methods of delivery

One of the points made in the book is these chemicals can be “both toxic and tonic” with a quote from the 16th century alchemist/physician Theophrastus von Hohenheim (Paracelsus): “It is the dose that makes the poison.” Enter insulin. A short, concise history of insulin takes us to the murder of Elizabeth Barlow, whose hubbie, Kenneth, sobbed over a photo of his wife as the police arrived to pull his dead wife from her bathtub. Then there’s a description of what insulin does to the body, and while insulin really is a miracle drug, in Elizabeth Barlow’s case (she was NOT a diabetic), a huge injection of insulin left some tell-tale signs which became clues that her death was an act of murder. In 1957, there was no “reliable test for insulin in the body.” In this landmark case, “1200 mice, ninety rats and several guinea pigs were used to determine that a lethal amount of insulin was in Elizabeth’s body.” Kenneth Barlow, a nurse, is “credited” for being the first person to commit murder using insulin. Another fascinating fact, most of the documented murders by insulin have been “committed by doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals.” Makes sense.

One of the frequently recurring themes in this book is the idea that physicians and scientists believe their training and expertise provide unparalleled insights that allow them to commit undetectable murders where others had failed.

Shocking facts here–animals killed in courtrooms as demo opportunities (probably plus a great shock factor to the jury), increasing patient deaths that defied all statistical possibility while murderous nurses ran rampant, and insulin-induced coma therapy as a cure for schizophrenia. (Note to doctors: AMAZING: comas will ‘cure’ all deviant behaviour.) Poisoning is a deadly serious subject yet the author delivers this detailed book with an irony that fits its content. Here’s an example:

Doctors giddily competed to see how many times a week they could put their patients into an insulin-induced coma, while others pushed the envelope to see how long their patients could be kept in a coma before reviving them.

It’s curious how many poisons have/had other uses–again that ‘dose’ quote. Arsenic for the face, castor oil for sickly children (thanks, mum!), Foxglove for the garden, the colour Prussian Blue….

In 1994, Safeway customers in Edinburgh were victims of a campaign poisoner who tainted bottles of water with Atropine. While the victims appeared to be random, they were collateral damage as part of a macabre plan for biochemist, university lecturer Paul Agutter to rid himself of his wife. Again, there’s a history of atropine, its uses and the tell-tell signs in the body.

Strychnine (“listed third in the top ten poisons by number of criminal cases, behind only arsenic and cyanide“) was a handy-dandy “pick-me-up” tonic for years but expanded into use as a “vermin killer.” A description of the crimes of the Lambeth Poisoner details the delivery, results and signs of this horrific poison.

Historically, Aconite plants appeared in herbal medicines for a variety of ailments and were used by dentists, but as the author notes, the margin of error between “numbing a pain and killing the patient were narrow.” (Let’s hope they were good at Math.) Enter Dr. Lamson who in the 19th century “went on a killing spree right out of a Christie mystery as he worked his way through his inlaws/family to get his hands on their inheritance.” In this case, a Dr. Stevenson, an expert in alkaloid poisons was called in to help the police. Stevenson’s “hobby” (well we all have to have hobbies, right?) was his ability to taste alkaloid “against a background of various bodily fluids.” Yes you guessed it.

Out of interest I looked on Amazon and found innumerable aconite herbal remedy products. Yikes!

Also included here is mention of Laboratory Number 1 in Moscow–a lab whose “trademark” “was to take existing poisons [and] using them in a way that was difficult to detect or trace back to Russia.” Cyanide mists, contaminated coffee (radioactive), poison tipped bullets. Also the poisoned umbrella tip “created” for the Bulgarian Secret Service used to kill Georgi Markov. All very James Bond–except that this is real– as was the murder of Alexander Litvinenko (polonium poisoning, Chapter 9). It’s difficult for me to narrow down the most shocking info here, but the most shocking mental image award goes to the section which details “death by bleach”–how one nurse injected bleach into dialysis ports eventually doing it in front of patients on dialysis machines!

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Happily Ever Older: Revolutionary Approaches to Long-Term Care: Moira Welsh

After reading Leisureville, I stumbled across Moira Welsh’s non-fiction book Happily Ever Older: Revolutionary Approaches to Long-Term Care. Since I was on a roll when it came to reading about aging, I decided to take a chance and see what I could learn. As it turned out, I learned a lot. Canadian author Moira Welsh is an investigative reporter, with a career focus on the elderly. The book was written during the COVID pandemic, and considering how hard nursing homes have been hit, the book’s publication is timely. Covid was fueled by “the system that controls seniors homes. For decades, long-term care has operated on a tight budget, draining the life pleasure of the people who reside within while devaluing the work of staff forcing many to work in two or three locations just to make a living wage. This is how the virus spreads from one home to the next.” Someone I know runs a care home and, under Covid, he says “it’s like being in a war zone.”

After a long career in journalism Moira Welsh acknowledges that her stories “always exposed the negative, neglect, abuse and isolation with the goal of improving the system.” This book takes a look at the established system of care for the elderly and then examines some of the revolutionary alternatives. As a result, writing the book, visiting the various homes, was, the author explains “like opening a door to another world.”

At one point, an Emotion-Based care “observational audit” is conducted in a highly rated care home by David Sheard, Founder of Dementia Care Matters. There are some descriptions of typical ‘interactions’ between residents and staff–for example– staff checked icons on computer screens such as “food eaten” “bodily functions” etc. There’s one mention of residents parked “like cars in a parking lot.” Residents are ignored, meals served with staff “whisking away plates on schedule.” Yes it’s all very efficient but rather ignores the whole premise that we are dealing with people here. For this reader, it sounds like the staff are monitoring lab rats. The author states that “neutral care is a form of abuse,” and I agree. One image that sticks in my mind is that of a nurse entering a room every once in a while and tossing a ball at the residents who are parked in a circle.

The author describes various new approaches to Elder Care: The Butterfly Model and its emotion-based care (uniforms banned, hallways painted bright colours, removing central dining rooms), The Eden Alternative, The Golden Girls Network, The Pioneer Network, Toronto HomeShare Programme, The Green House Project, and an incredibly interesting visit to a nursing home in the Netherlands. Another approach, outside of any sort of institutional, is the growth of acceptance of “Tiny Houses.” The book is packed with various stories of improvement in residents when Emotion-Based Care became the underlying philosophy of the various care homes. It may be difficult to formulate studies that scientifically measure specific improvements in residents, but things under consideration are a decrease in medication, less aggression, putting on weight, increased interactions. Other results are anecdotal and not so easy to measure– improvements in resident social behaviours, for example. Of course none of this comes cheap. Canada predicts that the cost of long-term care will increase from 22 billion in 2019 to 71 billion in 2050.

This is a very upbeat look at a depressing subject. The author argues that a shift in social attitudes is underfoot and must continue. There were a few too many sentimental anecdotes for my taste, but at the same time, it’s probably hard to avoid given the topic. I would have like more $$ numbers because that’s how my brain works. I would have liked more on the kids that stuff their parents in homes while looting the estate. I would also have liked more on the ethics of homes providing services to residents (there’s one near me that provides cleaners). I know it’s based on the hotel type of model, but I keep thinking about Better Call Saul. But all these things belong in another book. Or two.

Anyway…. I learned a lot that I had no idea about, and the book gave me food for thought. I decided to chop down some of the ornamental trees in my back garden as the annual trimming (on ladder) is something I can do without going forward. There are a few times in the book when numbers are bandied about. One home costs over 6K a month. Another 9-10K. I know someone who pays 8K a month. Good care doesn’t come cheap; I get it, but ye gods who can afford this??? In America the average social security check is around $1500 a month (numbers vary). Social security estimates that 50% of married couples and 70% of singles receive 50% or more of their income from Social Security. It’s debatable just how many Americans rely of social security alone. There’s a range of numbers on the internet–anywhere from 12% -40%.

During the creation of this book, the author had to confront her aging parents’ health issues which necessitated a move from their home, and her very personal experience is both candid and tender.

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Leisureville: Adventures in a World Without Children: Andrew D. Blechman

“I’d rather bite a suicide pill than live with any of my kids.”

Author Andrew Blechman’s neighbors, retired teacher Dave Anderson and his wife, Betsy, took a holiday to Florida, returned home to their small New England town, and promptly put their house up for sale. Blechman was surprised by the Andersons’ decision, but even more surprised to learn that the Andersons were moving to a gated retirement community in Florida. And not just any retirement community; the Andersons were moving to The Villages:

The Andersons were moving to the largest gated retirement community in the world. It spanned three counties, two zip codes and more than 20,000 acres. The Villages itself, Dave explained, was subdivided into dozens of separate gated communities, each with its own distinct entity, yet fully integrated into a greater whole that shared two manufactured downtowns, a financial district, and several shopping centers, and all of it connected by nearly 100 miles of golf cart trails.

Before the Andersons announced their impending move, the author had never heard of The Villages, and neither had I until I stumbled across this fascinating, flawed book. The Andersons move, and the author asks himself what motivated the Andersons to “sequester themselves in a gated geritopia?” Blechman goes to visit, and once there he gathers material for this non-fiction book.

The book includes a fascinating history of retirement communities which started in …. answer in one… you got it: Arizona. Retirement communities were rooted in idealism and also, as the author acknowledges, as a way for older Americans to “find community.” While a fair portion of the book concentrates on the appallingly bad, sexually promiscious behaviour of some of the residents of The Villages, there are also interviews, which do not take place in bars, with residents who express the fact that safety, and being able to go out at night, is a huge factor in their decision to move to The Villages:

I don’t feel threatened like I did back in Boston. Back home, I’d be stuck in the house, scared. Here I can go down to the square by myself, listen to the music, see people dancing, go home and I feel like I did something–and it doesn’t cost me a dime.

At one point, the author takes a tour and learns that “The Villages stands for GLC: golf, lifestyle, and convenience [..] everywhere you go is accessible by golf carts.” No doubt the ability to drive a golf cart anywhere appeals to those who are concerned that aging may threaten the renewal of a Driver’s License, but at several points in the book, there’s the definite feeling that driving golf carts removes the threat of the DUI. The term “Disney for adults” crops up more than once. The Villages is owned by the Morse family, and the author says that “from what I can tell, they own the liquor stores and liquor distribution rights, a mortgage company, several banks, many of the restaurants, two giant furniture stores as well as a giant indoor furnishings arcade called ‘The Street of Dreams,’ a real estate company, gold cart dealerships, movie theaters and the local media.” While I don’t care for this artificial construct, is this type of system that weird? Disney is the same–except people don’t live there (some wish they could). There’s a retirement housing complex in my town. It’s owned by some huge corporation. The seniors pay big bucks for these rentals which include maid service, meals and all these activities. I’m sure every lightbulb and all cleaning products are ‘provided’ by the management. No one seems to lift an eyebrow at the ethics of this–after all it’s sort of along the lines of a hotel playbook. Except in this case it’s seniors and long-term residence of more than a few nights. I couldn’t help but think of Better Call Saul….

One of the best parts of the book is a trip to the original development, the humble “decidedly less fancy Village of Orange Blossom Gardens” where “the Villages’ history begins.” One Orange Blossom Village resident notes that the “major difference [is] between the two sides of the highway” that divides his village from the other Village communities is “money.” As The Villages expanded, it became fancier–more amenities, larger houses etc. But then the tendency in America is towards larger, fancier homes.

Andrew Blechman doesn’t seem to like The Villages. I get it: At one point, he says he feels like he’s “on a movie set,” and indeed the impression I get is that it’s like one of those fake tourist towns–you know the ones–where there’s a main street with for the tourists and the ‘real people’ live elsewhere. The sense of the surreal, of this otherworld community is supported by the “The Villages’ own morning show, which is broadcast on Gary Morse’s television station” and then there’s Gary Morse’s local newspaper. The author longs for people his own age, which isn’t too surprising as he’s not the appropriate resident age, but there’s also a sense of disapproval:

While it’s not for me to say seniors shouldn’t enjoy themselves, the reality behind age segregation is another matter. No clever euphemism can hide the fact that these communities are based on a selfish and fraudulent premise–the exclusion of children and families.

I would have loved some interviews with people who left (there’s a whiff of the ghosts of former unhappy residents) or just more residents who weren’t Looking For Love In All the Wrong Places. Mr. Midnight (who gets his Viagra via mail order) and other lotharios at Crazy Gringos may have been easy to interview but I would hate to think they are typical residents. They can’t all be geriatric swingers. I would have also been interested in the financial side of things. These amenities are not free; they are mostly included: so how does that impact the cost-of-living? How many residents find that they run out of money and move on?

No doubt we all know what retirement communities are, and perhaps a few of those who read this live in one. While I had no idea that The Villages existed, after reading the book, I understand why many retired people rave about the place. At the same time, I know there’s no way in hell I’d move there:

Next door is the Savannah Center, a performing arts facility which was built to resemble Scarlett O’ Hara’s beloved Tara and which attracts touring Broadway productions. “I just can’t imagine what we don’t have here, ” Mindy remarks. “It seems like we have everything we could possibly need. And it’s so beautiful–like living in a Thomas Kinkade painting, but in real life.

I can’t stand Thomas Kinkade paintings.

Now I’m going to clarify that… saying I would never live in The Villages . … it’s not a moral judgment; it’s more that I am not social and it would be pointless for me to live there; plus the place would drive me nuts. If I want to put a statue in my front garden, I’m going to do it, dammit (the rules are much more relaxed in Orange Blossom Village, which sounds quite charming to be honest.) I’ve driven by an upscale retirement housing ‘village’ which boasts the sign: Your New Friends Are Waiting For You. Yeah… fat chance. The Villages is a playground for retirees, a “Disney for adults,” and that’s great, but the manufactured downtowns would make me feel as if I lived in one of those revolting tourist towns. But I’ll settle with whatever floats your boat (short of illegal, etc):

The Villagers’ perennially favorite pool: a whimsical creation reminiscent of the Flintstones with a water fall masking a hidden cave and a jacuzzi. There was a Tiki bar on one side, and on the other a small karaoke tent with an older DJ wearing a big grin and blasting music loud enough to make me cringe.

Back to the author’s argument that retirement communities are, in reality, regions of “age segregation,” and that “the communities are based on a selfish and fraudulent premise–the exclusion of children and families.” These seniors are not paying any taxes that are directed to schools etc. Residents can indulge in endless activities and idiosyncrasy seems to be encouraged. It seems creepy to me to imagine not living near children, and somehow jarring that young people staff the restaurants of the very communities in which they cannot live.

Leisureville is a thought-provoking read, but for me, the interest sprang from attitudes and expectations of the retired, the aging, the old. So I’ll ask this question: when we drive by those drab, lower income retirement communities, assisted living, homes to park the elderly, or whatever name you want to apply to these places, do we still think it’s age-segregation? It’s fundamentally the same thing– except, since these residences are not in their own separate, exclusive county, without the tax issue. Without the gloss and the glamour. Are the residents of these less-desirable, unappealing, spine- shivering places “selfish?” No of course not, and the reason we don’t think that is, because we suspect that, inside those walls, no one is having much fun. So is that what it comes down to…. fun…??? How much ‘fun’ retirees are expected to have? How much ‘fun’ do we think they should have?

Leisureville was published over 10 years ago, but there’s a documentary about The Villages on the way. Can’t wait.


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The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives: Diane Johnson

I’d never heard anything about Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith (1821-61) before I picked up Diane Johnson’s book, The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives. If you’d described the book to me, I probably would have rejected it as there are aspects to this history that would normally drive me crazy.  But the book, which is described as an “alternate biography”  and includes hypothetical and occasional filling in of gaps, is quite extraordinary. The author argues, and proves, that while Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith existed as an aside in other, more famous, peoples’ lives she had a rich and historically ignored life of her own.

The life of Mary Ellen is always treated, in a paragraph or a page, as an episode in the lives of Peacock or Meredith. It was treated with a certain reserve in the early biographies because it involves adultery and recrimination, and makes all the parties look ugly. More recent biographies of Meredith repeat the received version of the story with a brisk determination, a kind of feigned acceptance: we know that these things, regrettably, do indeed happen. 

Mrs. Meredith’s life can be looked upon, of course, as an episode in the lives of Meredith or Peacock, but it cannot have seemed that way to her. 

Mary Ellen was the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, married and widowed within a brief period of time, and then she met George Meredith who was 7 years younger. And what a miserable old sod Meredith sounds like. So perhaps it’s no wonder that Mary Ellen took a lover and ditched her neglectful spouse, but there was no happy ending for Mary, and who could have expected it in the 19th century.

Mrs Meredith

Mary Ellen’s first husband was Edwards Nicholls, “the wild, sexy son of a general of the Royal Marines,” and they were married, happily by all accounts, for a few “glorious months,” before he drowned trying to rescue a friend. Mary Ellen, 23 years old, returned home to her father, a pregnant widow. Four years later, she met George Meredith, “a brooding neurasthenic fussy about his food, obsessed with achieving literary success, and hardly ever wanting to leave the house.” They were “together” for 8 years.

After running off with her lover, Mary Ellen died of kidney disease in 1861. Convenient for many perhaps and thus she sank into history. Yet author Diane Johnson shows that Meredith, who used a flexible version of the truth whenever he recalled his former wife, never really recovered from the relationship–continually working her character, “drawn from his evergreen memories,” into various forms in his novels. 

He had never ceased to brood over her–her presence is invoked in novel after novel.

The book opens, after an excellent introduction from Vivian Gornick, with Mary Ellen’s poorly attended funeral. It’s a somewhat fanciful beginning with some details that surely must be speculative (the young vicar is embarrassed, for example) but instead of being annoyed, as I usually am by such fancies, I was drawn into the misty story of Mary Ellen, a woman whose short life wasn’t much fun, who struggled with poverty and abandonment and was haunted by the knowledge of an imminent early death.

Snippets of Mary Ellen’s childhood underscore her somewhat unconventional upbringing thanks to her “too-indulgent” father. Literary figures dot Mary Ellen’s life: James Hogg, Mary Shelley, and Claire Clairmont. These details hint at the inevitable rebellion of Mary Ellen when faced with the loneliness of a drab marriage, so it’s no great surprise that she fell in love with pre-Raphaelite artist, Henry Wallis, But Mary Ellen may have been born in the Romantic Age, but she was married in the Victorian Age, and Victorian attitudes to scandal buried her story.  Her poignant letters and notebooks reveal the realities of her married life to Meredith coupled with details of a troubled, rich inner life. Since Meredith lived to a ripe old age while the long-deceased Mary Ellen faded into obscurity, Meredith controlled both the narrative of his dead wife’s character and also the narrative of their life together. And the truth? Meredith kneaded the truth into an acceptable narrative even hinting that he had been trapped into marriage by Mary Ellen when certainly her literary connections gilded the deal. 

Somewhere, in some British parlor, she looks out of a painting called Fireside Reveries, and the people who see her every day may wonder–or perhaps it never occurred to them to wonder–whether the lady over the mantel was ever anyone real. 

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More Anatomy of Murder: Sayers, Iles,Crofts (1936)

“As for the academic question of whether the association of a young man with a woman considerably older than himself is to be regarded always as harmful to the young man, that is debatable.”

In More Anatomy of Murder, Dorothy L. Sayers, Francis Iles and Freeman Wills Crofts, respected authors of detective fiction, each discuss an infamous murder case. Sayers, Iles and Crofts were all members of the Detection Club (Sayers and Crofts were founders). Sayers considers The Murder of Julia Wallace, while Iles examines The Rattenbury Case, and finally Crofts, in a much shorter piece, discusses A New Zealand Tragedy.

More anatomy of murder

The biggest issue for readers of More Anatomy of Murder is that these three cases (or at least the first two) were headlines in 1933 and 1935, and so some prior knowledge of these murders is assumed. Fortunately for this reader, I was familiar with the Rattenbury case through the film Cause Célèbre. But back to the first section: The Murder of Julia Wallace. (The bones of this case reminded me of Celia Dale’s Helping with Inquiries. ) Julia Wallace’s husband, who claimed to have been lured from his home at the time of his wife’s bludgeoning murder, was arrested and tried for the crime. In the second case, the Rattenbury murder, Francis Rattenbury was murdered by his much younger wife’s lover (the wife initally confessed), and the third case, The Lakey murder, involved the murder of a married couple by a neighbor. So three very different types of murders.

Each of the authors takes a different approach to the case under examination. Sayers, for example, states that the law is interested in “one question only,” … “Did the prisoner do it?” while the crime novelist asks “if the prisoner did not do it, who did.” Sayers’ approach is heavily psychological as she peels away the layers and complications of the case. At each step of the evidence, she presents the possibility of Wallace being the murderer, or whether or not the murderer was another individual.

In The Rattenbury Case, Iles references the hanging of Edith Thompson and compares Alma Rattenbury to Edith Thompson, and the two cases appear similar on the surface. Iles argues that while husbands were murdered by their wives’ lovers in both instances, there are differences. Since married women seeking sex with young lovers loomed large in both cases, Edith Thompson and Alma Rattenbury’s behaviour scandalized the public, and Mrs. Rattenbury’s temperament is much discussed along with that of her 18-year-old lover/chauffeur, Stoner. Iles makes a good argument for the case that Mrs. Rattenbury and Stoner fed off each other’s unstable temperaments.

Iles also discusses Miss F. Tennyson Jesse’s transcript and commentary of the trial, and Iles argues that while Jesse “finds it difficult to account for Stoner’s crime,” and calls the crime “a gesture conceived in an unreal world,” he disagrees:

Where personal advantage looms so large if a certain person can only be knocked out of the path, the consequent knocking out bears a very solid relation to real life. 

The final case follows the standard police procedural as Freeman Wills Crofts tackles the evidence in the Lakey Murder Case.

I liked the way each author took a different approach, and Sayer’s wit bolstered the tame drabness of married life between Julia and William Wallace. She notes that while the couple’s married life seemed superficially happy, there are hints that life was not what it seemed:

Nothing will ever bring her back, and however much I want her or however much I miss her loving smiles and aimless chatter …

After reading this section, I had my own theory. The Rattenbury Case with its unstable, erratic household, morphia, lashings of alcohol and cocaine was a good contrast. Iles even spends some passages explaining why he is fascinated by the case.

(F. Tennyson Jesse wrote A Pin to See the Peepshow which is a fictionalised account of Edith Thompson and the Ilford Murder Case.)

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