Victorian Murderesses, by Mary S. Hartman ****

victorianmurderessesIt took me awhile to decide to include this title on my blog. The problem as I saw it was that it was marketed in October as a fun-but-naughty romp through history. The reality is less interesting, and to my eye, unbelievably dry. My daughter, a high school student, saw it differently. The four stars are our compromise between my three stars and her five.

“True crime” is a big house with a whole lot of rooms. Some true crime books are deliciously prurient; others are as dusty as the top of a ten foot tall bookcase. In this case, the title (“unspeakable”) and the jacket artist lead the reader to believe we are really going to get down and dish the dirt, and what is more…it’s all true!

Instead, what we have here is a very well-written, well-documented, extremely scholarly if surprisingly dull bit of research, maybe the author’s advanced degree work. The collision between the teaser and the product are somewhat jarring. This was a First Read sent me free through the Goodreads program and the publisher. I would have abandoned it more readily had I not felt a duty to get through it.

What would have fit the bill without ruining the author’s hard work is a good piece of juicy narrative nonfiction. Put in the documentation, but pick up the pace! As is, the book is sometimes a feminist treatise that all but blames Victorian society’s social contract for slut-shaming as an understandable excuse for murder in the case of unsuitable, unmarriageable mates of the lower classes (sorry, no sympathy here), or a self-defensive maneuver against constant verbal abuse, without the loss of a high standard of living that came with the ornery groom. A baby born out of wedlock gets snuffed when an abortion can’t be obtained. The author is inexplicably sympathetic to the not-for-long-I’m-not young mother. Don’t get me wrong; I am pro-choice and an ardent feminist, which you already know if you’ve been reading my blog long. But we’re talking about an infant carried to term, birthed, then suffocated. It turns my stomach to think of it.

At other times, the pace quickens a bit, as if the author is about to get excited and take us along with her, but then her dispassionate researcher’s mind grabs hold of her–stop it right now, you’re getting worked up!–and we go back to the librarian’s hushed monotone.

The font, while suitably Victorian, is really tiny and hard on the eyes.

It may be that I am being unfair to Hartman; she has done a good deal of work here, and the fault may lie with Dover or whoever is publishing and promoting her work. All I know is that I expected this to be a fun read, and it wasn’t. I kept pushing it away in favor of other reading, as if postponing the book might make me like it better once I returned to it.

My daughter, on the other hand, took it to a corner and became disconcertingly fascinated by it, not unlike a cat who’s just found an aquarium full of fish. Hmmm! Her explanation: “It’s even better than I expected!” Well…okay. And now, it’s HER galley.

A strong, scholarly effort that should have been marketed as such. Not a Halloween read.

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