This column focuses on fiction, but sometimes it’s good to change it up with true crime.
“The Trial of Lizzie Borden,” Cara Robertson’s powerful debut, is a bracing and insightful take on a famous double murder.
In 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were hacked to death in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Of that there is no dispute. Less certain even today is the guilt of their daughter Lizzie.
Andrew Borden was a wealthy man but tightfisted, cold and mean. Abby, his second wife, failed miserably to gain the affections of her distant husband or of Lizzie and Emma, Andrew’s daughters from his first marriage.
The sisters were trapped in a suffocating life. Still at home in their 30s, they were long past what was then a suitable age for marriage or employment.
So the Borden household was deeply miserable. Meals were served in two settings, since the daughters refused to eat with their parents or even speak to Abby. Everyone kept their bedroom doors locked.
Lizzie was always the prime suspect. Only she and a housemaid were home when the crime occurred. She had recently tried to buy poison from a pharmacist. After the crime and throughout the trial, she was eerily calm and told ever-shifting stories.
But there were troubling questions. For example: Why was the murder weapon’s handle missing? Did Lizzie’s enigmatic uncle figure in? Why had the initial police investigation been so cursory?
Lizzie was acquitted and lived out her life in Fall River, but a century later, the jury, so to speak, is still out. Did Lizzie indeed give her mother 40 whacks, and then her father 41, as the famous ditty suggests?
Robertson remains scrupulously impartial and has an understated but gripping style. Using court transcripts, recently located letters and other archival material, she details the trial and its defendant. (A distinguished attorney, she knows what she’s talking about.)
Robertson also expands on her story to vividly portray its Gilded Age setting and its social issues — still with us today. Among them: class and gender inequality, our relentless appetite for scandal, and, in the trial’s breathless media coverage, the blurring of serious reportage with histrionic opinion.
“The Trial of Lizzie Borden” by Cara Robertson, Simon & Schuster, 400 pp., $28
Cara Robertson will read Wednesday, May 1, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free; 206-624-6600, elliottbaybook.com.