Thursday, April 19, 2007

Lizzie Borden Took an Axe...

...Two Authors Gave Her Story a Whack

Lizzie Borden by Elizabeth Engstrom

The Borden Tragedy: A Treasury of Victorian Murder by Rick Geary

(Reviews first published in a few different newsletters back in 1999.)

It's amazing how different two books on the same subject can be. Novelist Elizabeth Engstrom has written an emotional, compelling look at the participants in the famous Lizzie Borden murder case, and in the process created a work of fiction so far removed from the actual events of the case as to be useless as history. Comic book artist Rick Geary, on the other hand, has provided a factual, detailed, macabre examination of the murders and the ensuing trial, but in the process has created a fairly emotionless look at two violently emotional murders.

Let's start with Engstrom's novel. First published in 1992, the centennial of the Borden murders, the back cover of LIZZIE BORDEN proclaims "Did she do it? The jury said no. Now learn the truth." But is this novel really the truth? Hardly. Engstrom's brief preface tells the reader that the novel is a work of fiction, assigning personalities to the participants in the Borden murders that otherwise would not exist in the formal trial transcripts of the case. "My purpose ... is to justify," she writes.

Engstrom manages to bring the characters of Lizzie Borden, her sister Emma, her father Andrew and step-mother Abby fully to life in the pages of this novel, and attempts to use these characterizations to tell us why the murders of Andrew and Abby were committed. The characterizations are nothing short of brilliant, but they take these real people so far away from historical fact that this novel can not really serve to "justify" the murders, as she claims. She invents a near insane drinking problem for Emma, lesbian affairs for Lizzie, another affair for Andrew (which turns almost incestuous as Lizzie falls for the same woman). But to make matters worse, she creates characters for Andrew and Abby that are so fully realized, so human, and in most cases so utterly sympathetic, that she in no ways justifies their murders. And then, in a final move that takes the novel completely out of the realm of historical viability, she invents an utterly ridiculous supernatural element to explain how Lizzie could have murdered her mother and father.

LIZZIE BORDEN is not a bad book. It is a work of fiction, and stands up on its own as that fairly well. But as a real examination of the Borden murders, well, it's a bit of a crock.

Much better, though far less emotional than Engstrom's work, is Geary's THE BORDEN TRAGEDY, the third volume in his excellent "Treasury of Victorian Murder" series of graphic novels. Geary gives us the details of the case, makes no conclusions of his own (instead keeping with the theories presented in the trial and by other Bordenologists), and leaves any judgement up to the reader, all while capturing the time period of the murders brilliantly, something Engstrom never manages to do.

Unlike Engstrom's novel, which begins in 1865 and ends in 1892 with the murders, Geary's THE BORDEN TRAGEDY starts in 1892 with the murders themselves. The narrative itself is based on the recently discovered memoirs of an unidentified Fall River, Massachusetts, woman who apparently was close friends with the Bordens.

Geary's narrative lacks the emotional characterization of Engstrom's novel, but it more than makes up for it by delving into the macabre aspects of the events following the murders. We see the post-mortem performed on the Borden dining room table, as the "townspeople jockeyed for a view through the wide-open windows." We learn how Lizzie and Emma's uncle John V. Morse, whose visit with the family coincided with the murders, spent the night after the ghastly events sleeping in the very guest room where Abby Borden had been killed hours before. In fact, we see how the entire family spent the night in the house with the two bodies on a table one floor below them. We also learn that "the cleaned and blanched skulls of Andrew and Abby Borden were exhibited to the jury" in the trial almost a year later, and see graphic depictions of the huge holes left in the skulls.

Geary also takes the time to examine how the Borden Tragedy really was the Trial of the Century, showing how the murders consumed not only the tiny town of Fall River but the entire the globe. Throughout THE BORDEN TRAGEDY, Geary captures the look, feel, style and mannerisms of late nineteenth century life in an economy of words and his trademark stylish, detailed line work. In fact, this may be the best artwork Geary has produced in his over 20-year career.

THE BORDEN TRAGEDY isn't a perfect book. Its characters are presented more as ciphers than as people, characterized more through drawings of tightly set mouths than with their actions or words. But it is a stylish, informative, entertaining, and absolutely fascinating look at two murders that still fascinate the world more than one hundred years later.

LIZZIE BORDEN - One and a half stars


No comments: