The Murder of the Century by Paul Collins

What better way to start 2017 than with a book blog about an entertaining piece of true crime that details a sensational murder that took place in New York in the summer of 1897, the same season and year that The Angel of Darkness was set—and indeed, that even inspired one of the fictional murders described in the novel. Described as “riveting” by The New York Times, this has been one of the most atmospheric pieces of true crime set in late 19th century New York that I have read to date. Provided one reads this work with both the strengths and weaknesses of this genre in mind (see below), I highly recommend this to readers of the Alienist books.

What’s it about?

A group of boys cooling off on a scorching summer afternoon in 1897 find a large parcel wrapped in oilcloth floating in the East River. Thinking they’ve made a fortunate find—it might be farm goods from Brooklyn—they eagerly unwrap the package, only to make a gruesome discovery: a headless human torso, arms still attached. The following day, a father taking his sons blueberry picking in the woods near Harlem also discovers a parcel wrapped in oilcloth. The contents of this one? The lower quadrant of a man, cut off at the thighs and waist. Meanwhile, a Long Island farmer’s ducks become sick after swimming in water turned red with blood.

The police investigating the find at the East River pier are convinced the perpetrators are medical students and make no further enquiries, even falsifying the patrolman’s report. It takes an exiled detective—one of Byrnes’ old men—to identify the grisly finds as a homicide case. However, as he starts to investigate the first few leads, he discovers that he is not the first to have made enquiries: enterprising reporters from the battling sensational newspapers of the Telegram, Herald, and World got there before him. The Murder of the Century documents the race to solve the crime and the sensational publicity circus surrounding the eventual trial, highlighting how the tabloid wars of the Gilded Age forever changed the face of newspaper journalism.

My thoughts

For years I’ve been looking for a piece of crime fiction as entertaining and evocative of late 19th century New York as the Alienist novels. The search has, by and large, been in vain. Although many attempts have been made, I have always felt that the Alienist books have been flagships in this genre that no others have quite lived up to. Given that The Murder of the Century is a work of nonfiction that I picked up simply to learn more about a real murder mentioned briefly in The Angel of Darkness, I little thought that I would find a contender here. You can therefore imagine my surprise when I started reading and found myself experiencing a similar feeling to what I’d felt back when I first picked up The Alienist.

Now, before I continue: a word of warning. The Murder of the Century belongs to a genre known as creative (or narrative) nonfiction. For anyone unfamiliar with this genre, it is nonfiction written in the style of fiction. The writing is compelling and dialogue is often included as full conversations. Even though works of this genre aim to create a factually accurate narrative, I acknowledge that this form of nonfiction has more pitfalls than any other. After all, if one is writing scenes from history as though they belong in a novel, does that not blur the line between fiction and nonfiction? However, provided that the research is thorough and the writer is careful—and that is certainly the case here where every source has been meticulously referenced—certain subjects do lend themselves to this genre. In this case, author Paul Collins notes:

The tremendous press coverage of this affair, with sometimes more than a dozen newspapers fielding reporters at once—not to mention the later memoirs of its participants—allowed me to draw on many eyewitness sources. All of the dialogue in quotation marks comes directly from conversations recorded in their accounts, and while I have freely edited out verbiage, not a word has been added.

Of course, this very strength potentially raises another issue. Specifically, given that this was the era of “yellow journalism”—and indeed, one of the purposes of this book is to highlight just how popular and competitive this new sensationalist reporting had become, often at the expense of facts—one may wonder just how accurate a work of narrative nonfiction primarily based off such coverage is likely to be. However, Paul Collins does his best to make sure readers are aware of the limitations of these sources, and has supplemented them with “court records and memoirs written by journalists and detectives from the case” as additional primary sources. My own feeling is that provided you approach a work like The Murder of the Century for what it is intended to be while keeping its strengths and limitations in mind, it can still be a thoroughly enjoyable way to gain more knowledge about a subject and time period that you might not otherwise obtain. I think of it in much the same way as TV and movie depictions of historical subject matter, such as HBO’s lauded John Adams adaptation from 2008. While the best of these adaptations attempt to portray their historical subject as accurately as possible, they are nonetheless a visual form of creative nonfiction.

In my own case, I feel that The Murder of the Century’s strength lies with its extremely atmospheric descriptions of New York in 1897. I suspect this is why it evoked the same sort of feeling I had originally experienced when reading The Alienist or The Angel of Darkness. We are there with the boys on the pier when they make their original gruesome discovery. A portrait of the grisly morgue at Bellevue is drawn for us as effectively as if we had been standing beside the slab on which the torso had been placed. And we spend a considerable period of time inside John Schuyler Moore’s world of journalism at the turn of the century. It is in this way that the book reads like the Alienist books, and is the primary reason that I recommend it to readers like myself who have tried, but failed, to find similarly atmospheric books set in New York in the late 19th century.

The other attraction for Alienist readers is the case The Murder of the Century focuses on. In Chapter 4 of The Angel of Darkness, Stevie and Cyrus collect the Isaacson brothers from a crime scene at Cunard pier. A group of boys who have been swimming to cool off found (you guessed it) a torso wrapped in oilcloth floating in the Hudson. While the case the Isaacsons are investigating is fictitious (it took place six days earlier, was found in the Hudson River rather than the East River, and the arms were removed from this torso), it was clearly inspired by the real case detailed in The Murder of the Century. In addition, one of the suspects in The Murder of the Century will likely be of interest to anyone who enjoyed The Angel of Darkness, as will the sensational trial described in the second half of the book; but to say more would give too much away.

So, if you are in the mood for a read that will take you back to the New York City described in the Alienist books, would like to learn more about John Schuyler Moore’s world of journalism in the late 19th century, or are at all curious to learn more about the real crime that inspired The Angel of Darkness’ fictitious torso case, The Murder of the Century might just be the book you’re looking for.

2 Comments

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

I’ve been trying to decide whether to include George Eliot’s final and most controversial novel, Daniel Deronda, on the 17th Street book blogs since I finished reading it over a month ago. Although Caleb Carr has never mentioned George Eliot as an inspiration for his work, this challenging novel explores several themes that may be of interest to Alienist readers. As a result, for the 11th anniversary of 17th Street, I have decided to go ahead and share my thoughts on one of the most fascinating psychological studies of human character, relationships, and society that I’ve read to date.

What’s it about?

Daniel DerondaGwendolen Harleth is about to gamble away her family fortune at the roulette table when she notices the enigmatic Daniel Deronda watching her from across the room. From this moment on, the stories of these two contrasting protagonists become intertwined as they face challenges that take them down very different paths. Although the unconventional Gwendolen makes choices that might appear to be conservative on the surface, they lead her into realms of moral uncertainty from which she struggles to escape. On the other hand, the extremely conventional Daniel’s search for belonging and identity is taken down an unexpected and unconventional path when he encounters a young Jewish woman who is also searching for her family.

George Eliot states early in the novel that, “Men, like planets, have both a visible and an invisible history.” In the way she masterfully charts the stories of these two fascinating characters, Eliot successfully demonstrates that it is indeed possible to “thread the hidden pathways of feeling and thought which lead up to every moment of action, and those moments of intense suffering which take the quality of action — like the cry of Prometheus, whose chained anguish seems a greater energy than the sea and sky he invokes and the deity he defies.”

My thoughts

Daniel Deronda, Chapter 51

“Oh — the reasons for our actions! … When you are as old as I am, it will not seem so simple a question — ‘Why did you do this?’ People talk of their motives in a cut and dried way. Every woman is supposed to have the same set of motives, or else to be a monster. I am not a monster, but I have not felt exactly what other women feel — or say they feel, for fear of being thought unlike others. When you reproach me in your heart for sending you away from me, you mean that I ought to say I felt about you as other women say they feel about their children. I did not feel that. I was glad to be freed from you.”

For any visitors who have read The Angel of Darkness, my decision to open this book blog with the preceding quote should go a long way toward explaining why I feel this novel may be of interest to Alienist readers. While the role of women in society, and more particularly the role that mothers play in their children’s development, are prominent themes in The Alienist, they become the central themes in The Angel of Darkness when we encounter a woman whose struggles in this area motivate her criminal behaviour. Moreover, in both books Sara Howard’s character helps readers understand the feeling of frustration many women in the nineteenth century would have experienced at the expectation that women needed to marry and have children in order to be considered ‘whole’.

As the preceding quote suggests, several of the women in Daniel Deronda share these sentiments, and do not conform to the nineteenth century’s ideal for womanhood, particularly with regard to having children. Indeed, the novel’s protagonist, Gwendolen Harleth, describes early in the novel just how limited the options were for women in the nineteenth century, and how frustrating this could be for women of a more independent or spirited temperament. | Continue reading →

What do you think? Leave a comment!

The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins

This month I bring you yet another book blog that I never intended to write! Anyone familiar with my reading taste will know that, like the Isaacson brothers, I have a particular fondness for the work of nineteenth century “sensation” novelist, Wilkie Collins. Although only The Moonstone, one of Collins’ more famous detective novels, was mentioned by title in The Alienist (see 17th Street’s book blog for it here), I recently read and enjoyed Collins’ lesser known 1875 work, The Law and the Lady. Given that The Law and the Lady contains one of those rarest of creatures in nineteenth century fiction — a female detective — I came away feeling that it might be of interest to any Alienist readers who have a particular fondness for Sara Howard’s character, and I know there are a lot of you out there.

What’s it about?

The Law and the Lady“What a plot for a novel!” These words, referring to events in The Law and the Lady, were exclaimed by one of the characters midway through the story. Written from the perspective of the novel’s newly married heroine, Valeria Woodville, The Law and the Lady asks readers to follow the actions and thoughts of an intelligent, determined woman who leaves a conventional life behind in order to turn amateur detective (in the mid-1870s, no less) after discovering a dark secret in her new husband’s past. Part sensation novel and part detective novel, The Law and the Lady explores themes common to many of Wilkie Collins’ better known works including gender roles and false identity in a story where a woman is attempting to succeed in an investigation where the most learned men in society have gone before her and failed.

My thoughts

In his Introduction to Penguin’s 1998 edition of The Law and the Lady, David Skilton, a Professor of English at Cardiff University, discusses how Wilkie Collins’ “unorthodox” domestic life (he kept two separate women and their families while being married to neither) resulted in his taking “an unsurpassed interest in women characters, and particularly in their intellects and ambitions, and the social restrictions imposed on them.” Naming the far more conventional Anthony Trollope as the only other male novelist who “stands out as seriously interested in the mental life of women and their sense of identity” during the period (you can read my thoughts on Trollope’s 1875 masterpiece The Way We Live Now in the 17th Street book blogs as well), he notes that, “What the ‘realistic’ Trollope and the ‘sensational’ Wilkie Collins had in common was the ability to look at the relations between the sexes with rather less rigidity of mind than most of their male contemporaries.”

For a work that features one of the first female detectives to appear in a full length novel, this is certainly an apt description of Collins’ characterisation of women in The Law and the Lady. For example, Sara Howard’s complaints in The Alienist about the difficulties she faces in pursuing her chosen career path due to the social restrictions of the late nineteenth century are illustrated first hand in The Law and the Lady. When Valeria reveals that she intends to discover the truth about the dark secret in her husband’s past in order to save his good name, she faces severe opposition from every side. Her husband believes that she should be “superior to the vulgar failings of her sex” (that is, curiosity). Her deceased father’s old clerk, bewildered and dismayed, exclaims, “I never heard, Valeria, of a woman doing what you propose to do. Lord help us! the new generation is beyond my fathoming.” Even her uncle, usually kind and tolerant, sardonically asks, “May a plain country parson, who isn’t used to lawyers in petticoats, be permitted to ask how you mean to do it?” And upon discovering her planned course of action, further declares:

“Do you mean to tell me,” he said, “that you are going roaming about the country, to throw yourself on the mercy of strangers, to risk whatever rough reception you may get in the course of your troubles? You! A young woman! … With nobody to protect you! … I declare to Heaven I don’t know whether I am awake or dreaming. Look at her — just look at her! There she sits as cool and easy as if she had said nothing at all extraordinary, and was going to do nothing out of the common way!”

And yet, it is this same “obstinate” Valeria who proves to be far more capable than almost any of the men she encounters. She asks her husband at one point in the novel, “Are you surprised at the knowledge of the law which this way of writing betrays in an ignorant woman? I have been learning, my dear: the Law and the Lady have begun understanding one another.” Even so, it would be wrong to imply that Valeria is motivated by feminist values. While she upturns the conventions of polite Victorian society to pursue her ends, she has done so for a decidedly conventional Victorian reason: to save her husband’s good name and, in doing so, save her marriage. For this reason, she does not find herself entirely friendless in her pursuit of the truth. Her father’s old clerk eventually comes around, and her mother-in-law (another strong and intelligent woman) clearly sees from the first that Valeria is “no fool,” admires her courage, and does what she can to help even though she feels her daughter-in-law’s plans are doomed to fail.

Nonetheless, Collins goes further than usual in The Law and the Lady in challenging nineteenth century societal norms. Where Valeria is clever and sensible, her husband is described — by his own mother, no less — as “weak-minded” and lacking fortitude. And while the novel features an unconventional cast of characters that won’t surprise any reader who has explored Collins’ other work, it is noteworthy that their eccentricities in The Law and the Lady relate primarily to gender. The most notable example is the unfortunate Mr. Miserrimus Dexter, born with a deformity and dismissed as “mad” by almost everyone in the novel. He enjoys wearing bright colours in an era when black was the norm for men (“I despise the brutish contempt for beauty and the mean dread of expense which degrade a gentleman’s costume to black cloth … I like to be bright and beautiful.”), composes and sings with a harp, does his own cooking, and partakes in needlework while conversing with visitors (“Women,” he said, “wisely compose their minds, and help themselves to think quietly, by doing needlework. Why are men such fools as to deny themselves the same admirable resource … As a man, I follow the women’s wise example.”). Within The Law and the Lady it seems that Collins was actively challenging societal restrictions and stereotypes for women and men alike.

As much as I appreciate what Wilkie Collins accomplished in this novel, I should note that parts of it can stretch a modern reader’s suspension of disbelief. Certain early discoveries in the novel depend on chance encounters, and there are sections that readers who aren’t tolerant of too much eccentricity might find tiresome (no prizes for guessing what I’m referring to here). For the most part, however, I thoroughly enjoyed my read of The Law and the Lady, and speaking from a woman’s perspective, I found Collins’ first person narration as a female to be believable and realistic. If you are new to Wilkie Collins, I would recommend starting with one of his better known works, but The Law and the Lady can make an excellent second or third choice. After all, what self-respecting Sara Howard fan wouldn’t enjoy reading about one of the pioneering female characters who started it all?

What do you think? Leave a comment!

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

In order to provide a short break from posting news on the blog, I’ve decided to feature a book blog this month about a novel I recently read for the first time: The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. Although I hadn’t intended to discuss this hefty classic (it ranges in page length, depending on edition, from 800 to over 1000 pages) on 17th Street, by the time I reached the three-quarter mark in my reading, I came to feel that I would be doing this masterpiece of literature a disservice if I did not feature it here. Aside from sharing several themes with the Alienist novels, it also introduces a cast of some of the strongest female characters in all of literature. As a result, it has quickly become one of my favourites; and who knows — if you give it a chance, it might become one of yours, too.

What’s it about?

The Way We Live NowWritten in 1875 after Anthony Trollope returned to England following a two-year trip to Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, The Way We Live Now is a powerful satire of English politics, speculative finance, and society. Originally intended to be a novel about the Carbury family before it morphed into something far grander, The Way We Live Now opens by introducing the reader to the enterprising Lady Carbury who is single-handedly attempting to support her two adult children, Sir Felix and Hetta, through the publication and self-promotion of her first book, a facetiously titled work called Criminal Queens. Throughout the pages that follow, the lives of Lady Carbury and her children, along with those they are connected with, become intertwined with the towering figure of the novel, Augustus Melmotte: financier, aspiring politician, — and swindler.

As we watch as Melmotte’s rise and fall, we gain a new perspective on themes that range from corruption to the role of women in society and the secret world of the family behind closed doors. While it may have been written over one hundred and forty years ago, its masterly presentation of timeless themes and characters makes The Way We Live Now a novel of our own age as much as it is a novel of English society in the early 1870s.

My thoughts

I went into The Way We Live Now with high expectations; however, it would seem that my expectations were not high enough! I’ve read many novels history holds up as “great,” but I can count on one hand the novels that I personally consider to be “masterpieces.” This, I am pleased to say, is one of them. Having previously seen the excellent 2001 miniseries starring David Suchet as Augustus Melmotte, I was already aware of the plot and knew that I would appreciate most of the themes Trollope explores. Although the first hundred pages is somewhat slow while the large cast of characters is introduced (we follow the stories of over ten main characters, in addition to numerous lesser characters), by the half-way point it became so gripping — even though I already knew the plot! — that it would be best described as a “page turner.”

More surprising than this, I hadn’t been expecting to feel quite so emotionally connected to several of the main characters. Trollope deals with difficult subject matter, including emotional and physical abuse, and there were times when I felt so drained that I needed to give myself a break before continuing. Related to this, it’s rare that I come out of a book naming one of the females as my favourite character. It is rarer still that I find a “strong” female character so realistically formed that I am willing to consider her one of my favourite female characters of all time. So you can imagine my delight when I found just such a character in The Way We Live Now.

In order to discuss these subjects in more detail, unfortunately I need to verge into spoiler territory. As a result, this will be a somewhat unusual book blog as I will be ending the spoiler-free section of my thoughts here, and then continuing my discussion (spoilers included) under the link, which also includes a discussion of the themes I feel the novel shares with the Alienist books. If you have not read the book but are interested enough at this point to give it a try, I encourage you to do so and come back to read the rest of my thoughts later to see if you agree with me. However, if you have already read the novel, or don’t care about being spoiled, then by all means read on! | Continue reading →

What do you think? Leave a comment!

« Older Entries