The Murderer’s Maid

The Murderer’s Maid: A Lizzie Borden Novel  by Erika Mailman

Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done she gave her father forty-one!

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Bridget Sullivan

Bridget Sullivan was one of 13 children born into the copper mining community in Allihies, on the Beara Peninsula. Squirreling away a small piece of blue copper for luck, Bridget shipped out to America in 1883. Money earned as a maid was sent back to West Cork.

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Abby, Andrew, Emma and Lizzie Borden. Image: the Sims Resource

Andrew Borden, a wealthy mill owner, lived thriftily, in a clapboard house which was strangely and inconveniently conformed to keep family members apart. Meals were taken in shifts for the same reason. Miss Emma and Miss Lizzie, the sisters, born to Andrew and his late wife Sarah, ate together after the patriarch and his second wife, Abby had dined. Borden confides ‘we have some odd arrangements in this house, and I’ll welcome you keeping quiet on personal matters’.

The atmosphere in the house was tense, partially poisoned by Mr Borden’s miserliness but also heightened by the siblings’ unpleasant behaviour. Bridget endured it all for a number of reasons. At least Mr Borden, unlike her two previous masters, kept his hand off her. And she felt compassion for the second Mrs Borden whose life was made miserable by her resentful stepdaughters. Lizzie’s somnambulism made Bridget nervous as did other strange occurrences such as mysterious appearances and disappearances of menstrual napkins. Bridget’s attempts at resignation were challenged by large cash bonuses destined for her impoverished family in Ireland.

The entirely fictional narrative centres on Brooke Hernandez, who has secreted her birth name, Felicita, behind a tangle of aliases. Brooke is convinced that someone, maybe the same person who killed her mother, is pursuing her as she flits from one state to another, working below-the-counter waitress jobs and living in temporary accommodation.

51BhgUWfj3L._SY346_.jpgBrooke seems to think that reading true crime will help her keep one step ahead of her putative murderers. When she reads about Lizzie Borden’s trial, however, she is astonished to be immersed in the story of ‘women whose skirts drag the floor, who use privies and chamber pots and ride in horse-drawn buggies’.

After her mother’s death Brooke met a young boy, Miguel, at the group foster home in which they were raised. Although separated by distance the two friends keep in daily touch online.   No one else is Brooke’s friend on Facebook and when an egg icon pops up named Randy Shotglass Brooke replies ‘I’ll crush you, eggshell’.   Over the years small incursions into her various rooms have prompted Brooke to move on. A pot or magazine might have been moved marginally suggesting that ‘he’ has found her. Brooke, however, is distracted by a new relationship with attorney, Anthony, whom she met at her place of work.

Bizarrely she and Anthony take a weekend break in Fall City, staying at the Lizzie Borden B&B. The unique selling point of the guesthouse is that inside Abby and Andrew Borden were axed to death. On sale is a wind chime with a dangling axe suspending ‘iron blood drops’ and a ‘bobblehead, spattered with blood and holding an axe, glaring with wide-open, creepy eyes’.

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Erika Mailman

The Murderer’s Maid is an engaging book championing two young women from humble backgrounds. It seems churlish to compare it with Margaret Atwood’s excellent Alias Grace, also based on a notorious crime committed in a household of masters and servants. That was a serious novel which examined, forensically, class and gender.  This tale resembles the books that inspired Mailman: Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. In other words it’s not quite grown up.

Works Cited

Alcott, L. M. Little Women. 1868/69. Roberts Brothers. Print.

Atwood, M.  Alias Grace. 1996. McClelland & Stewart. Print.

Mailman, E. The Murderer’s Maid: A Lizzie Borden Novel.  2017. Bonhomie Press. Print.

Montgomery, L.M. Anne of Green Gables. 1908. L. C. Page & Co. Print.

Pearce, P. Tom’s Midnight Garden. 1958. Oxford University Press. Print.

A version of this review was first published on page 34 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 19th May 2018.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor. 

 

 

 

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Friends and Traitors by John Lawton

Someone was following Frederick Troy.

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Friends and Traitors took years to write. Lawton would pick it up and have a go at it and then be distracted by another book that needed writing. Finishing it finally only after reading Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess by Andrew Lownie (2015) Lawton says that he could not ‘have written this novel without his help’.

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In an addendum titled ‘Stuff’ Lawton explains the difficulties he had with the story of Guy Burgess because it is a tale that has been told so many times, in various media, but not recorded by the spy himself nor by his partner-in-defection, Donald Maclean.

Lawton specialises in the line between fact and fiction and it is not surprising that his one non-fiction publication is subtitled History as Melodrama. In Friends and Traitors, the eighth novel in the Inspector Troy series, the Scotland Yard superintendent has a melodramatic meeting with Burgess in Vienna in 1958. The spy indicates that he wants to ‘come home’. Obviously, in history, this did not happen.

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Instead Burgess attempted repatriation in 1959 when another character from this novel, Harold Macmillan, was on a state visit to Moscow. Earlier in the book, Lawton includes a little joke, amusing in hindsight. He describes Macmillan in 1935 as ‘a backbencher with about as much chance of cabinet office as our cat’. In history he became Prime Minister of England. Ho ho ho.

In Friends and Traitors Troy’s father, a newspaper baron, has reluctantly agreed to sponsor his second son, Frederick, through cadetship of the Metropolitan Police.

Gieves Advert - Navy List 1937 lr.jpgTroy is too short to be a policeman and so has to go with his father’s employee, Burgess, to Gieves in Old Bond Street to have his ‘blue-black serge uniform’ retailored. They then go drinking at the Burlington Arms from which Troy, in spite of being cute and only 18, emerges unmolested.

Sir Alex Troy, a White Russian, now a respected member of the British establishment is aware that any scandal involving his family and Burgess would end in disaster. In possession of inside information the baronet warns his sons to avoid the colourfully camp undercover agent. But Troy could not always avoid Burgess.

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Later in the story when old Etonian Burgess has been living in the Soviet Union for many years he lists the things that he misses. Over two pages the items include many elements of Englishness, such as ‘Pomp and Circumstance’, that would probably appeal to Brexiteers. There are other items, including ‘the little blue bag at the bottom of a bag of crisps’, which no longer exist.

Although the central family in Friends and Traitors are Russian emigrants, and several of the other characters Soviet spies, this book is quintessentially English. The passages set in the underground clubs and hotel bars of Blitzkrieg London are detailed and well crafted. And the depiction of the capital’s wartime queer underbelly with its gents’ bogs, rent boys, randy guardsmen and priapic sailors is nothing if not colourful.

Faithful readers of the Inspector Troy novels will be able to make cogent connections to Lawton’s other titles, five of which chronologically precede 1958. Nevertheless those new to the series are not at a disadvantage and might feel encouraged, by brief references to the murders of the rabbis or to Troy’s former lover, Zette Borg, to venture further into the hinterland of Troy’s professional and personal lives.

One should warn the gentle reader that the language and action are somewhat coarse and vulgar and not what one would necessarily expect from the pen of an English gentleman. Lawton was, he admits, although this might be another of his jokes, named in a Parliamentary Bill in the British House of Lords, as an offender against taste and balance.

Below: photographs of John Lawton are rare.

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Works cited.

Lawton, J. Friends and Traitors.  Grove Press. 2017.  Print.

Lownie, A. Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess. 2015. Hotter and Stoughton.  Print.

A version of this review was first published on page 37 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 19th May 2018.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.