The Crime Studies network now has a vlog where folks are giving presentations of work in progress from their research. Looks to be quite interesting. This is the first one that caught my eye. If you’re a crime fiction scholar, they’re looking for submissions, so think about it.
KILLING TIME IN THE CATSKILLS
The Twisted Tale of the Catskill Ripper:
Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ McNally Halliday
Moonlight Press, 2019
You know how it is being a crime writer: you idly google to find any local crime or interesting murders in the region, so being confined to the Hudson Valley at present I decided to do a little looking around and discovered the tale of Maggie/Lizzie McNally [several other married names] Halliday (or actually Halladay because her last husband’s name was misspelled). Intrigued by the short version of her life and misdeeds, and like so many of us at present far too inclined to use any excuse to get more books, I ordered Owen’s in hopes of getting a lot more useful detail on the intriguing suggestions an internet search brought. She was interviewed by Nellie Bly! What all did they talk about? She was actually Irish: was she really credibly accused of not only being ‘the worst woman on earth’ but also possibly Jack the Ripper?
Owen’s book offers a lot of detail presented in a straight-forward manner, reasonably free of the constant rhetoric deploring the obviously terrible actions which can mar these local histories. Believe me, her actions speak quite plainly for themselves! She may not be the worst woman on earth even in the late 19th century, but she sure caused a lot of mayhem.
Lizzie (or Maggie as she was called by her family then) came over from Co Antrim after her father John and oldest brother Sam got a foothold in the US. The youngest of eight children, at about 8 years of age, Maggie/Lizzie arrived in Newburgh, NY with lots of other Irish immigrants. Like so many of the immigrant women who arrived then, she soon left school and went into service. It didn’t take long to find out that her temper did not suit being a servant. A pattern soon emerged of Lizzie demanding money that she felt she was owed and revenge against anyone who said otherwise.
Lizzie found being a washerwoman offered some measure of independence in comparison to being a servant in a fine house, where her last job ended when she threatened a child with a knife. As Owen points out, there wouldn’t be much record of her early life ‘if not for her outbursts of violent temper and threats to others’ (19). At fifteen she marries for the first time one of her washing clients, Charles Hopkins — who of course is not really who he says he is but Keetspool Brown, a deserter from the British Army. Oh and he’s still involved with a married housekeeper — who’s soon found dead. Was it suicide? Was it Charles/Keetspool? Was it Lizzie? Did her murderous career begin here?
She has a child with her first husband — a son who will eventually be taken away from her for his safety. His fate is unknown. Also the cause of death of her first husband was unclear: typhoid? Too long inhaling bristles from the brush factory he worked in? Or maybe poison? She claimed it wasn’t her: husband number two — much older and with a good pension and an opium habit, that was much more likely to be Lizzie’s plan. The third husband lost all his money but managed not to lose his life. The fourth survived some poisoned tea. The fifth was the first to be almost as young as she, but soon disappeared. For a time Lizzie took to ‘tramping’ (hobo life) and sometimes living with the Travellers who had come to that region.
Things go on all the way to her last fatal husband and a curious double homicide that may have had something to do with revenge. The murders were a sensation — her capture and trial even more so. Women who murdered tended to be more genteel: the brutal and contemptuous manner of her final spree shocked the nation.
And it didn’t all end there!
Well worth a read. A few quibbles: not once was Antrim spelled correctly; the page layout is a bit wonky but you get used to it. Because part of my interest was wanting to dive into the primary materials I found the bibliography a confusing mess. With no footnotes or endnotes, it is doubly vexing to have no discernible order to the works cited nor connection to the information in the text.
By the way, no: no credible chance of her being linked to the Whitechapel murders.
I was really excited about a new book from Harris. His best work is hypnotic and even books of his that others have disparaged, I have greatly enjoyed (though I would have loved to see an editor push him through one more reqrite of the climactic scene of Hannibal Rising). Much of this novel is fascinating and exciting. I could have done without the constant reminders of how attractice the main character is, but her background as a child soldier was gripping and tragic. The primary antagonist, Hans-Peter Schneider, was singular and repulsive in a particularly interesting way and there were all the elements of international crime to keep the plates spinning and the tension taut. As many have mentioned, however, it all feels a bit thinly sketched. I would have loved to see a lot more of this world. The inclusion of a chapter of Red Dragon at the end just made me want to re-read that immediately. The book is gorgeous but since Penguin is doubling down on publishing and promoting fascists and anti-Semites, I don’t plan to throw money their way any time soon.
MAIGRET AND THE GOOD PEOPLE OF MONTPARNASSE
Penguin book, too, but as I found it on the shelf at the pub, I didn’t hand any money to them. A particularly good shelf that day, where I had to choose between a few good choices. I am slowly acquainting myself with the Simenon catalogue, though I think there’s something essentially Gallic missing from my sensibilities. I can appreciate Simenon without really liking him. Maybe — after listening to Andy Lawrence talk about them — I need to try some of the romans dur instead. I did enjoy the first part of the biography of the writer, but had to return it to the library when I changed countries again. Shall have to get back to that. I enjoyed this; Simenon’s style is without artifice. I always learn from reading him.
I have been obsessing on Libby Holman for a while now. The tragic torch singer inspired the theme song for LOVE IS A GRIFT and the film that we used in the music video. Holman was a huge star on stage, lived life to the fullest, but everything started to go wrong when she married the spoiled heir to a tobacco fortune. He shot himself but local prejudice and anti-Semitism led to Libby being charged with murder (despite her husband having a long history of suicidal tendencies and raging alcoholism). They finally give up on the trial, but from that day things seem to go south. She never quite gets her career back on track and people around her seem to die at an alarming rate — including her bizarre and needy later relationship, Montgomery Clift — and her own sad end. But she left her estate to Connecticut where its natural beauty can be shared by all. Kind of a trashy bio, but a quick read.
I can end on a high note: my god, Spark is a wonder. Is there anyone who can skewer quite so deftly as she? Who can whip together murder, Scots border ballads, eccentric relatives and snarky suburbanites with apparent effortlessness? Margaret worries she has the evil eye, Uncle Magnus has a purple tie, the painter would quite like to paint and not have dinner parties, the mother of the groom wants to give them a Monet even though she rather hates the bride and what’s really up with the servant and his very expensive watch. This is the kind of book where all the unexpected pieces fit together so neatly that when you finish it, it is tempting to re-read it immediately to relish the pleasure of it all. Clever, but not in the way that people usually mean that. Delightful is a better word. Savagely so. Laugh out loud funny, too.