Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Movie: Lizzie, about Lizzie Borden. With Chloe Sevigney and Kristen Stewart

I wasn't feeling great today, so I watched Lizzie, a movie I've wanted to see for awhile, on HBO Max. It's not supposed to be nonfiction, but it sticks close to the facts--except that it combines Uncle John with the town constable. This is unfair. The real Constable/Sheriff did a great job, actually, while the real Uncle John was indeed a shady character. As shady as he is in the movie, I don't know, but rather shady.

This movie tries to answer the Why more than the How. It shows that Lizzie did indeed commit the murders. It is very well directed and very well acted. If you have an interest in Lizzie Borden, it is well worth your time. If you don't, though, this may be a tough sell for you. It stretched the truth a little, but it really focuses on Lizzie Borden's possible lesbianism, and Bridget's, too, for that matter. I disagree with this approach for two reasons. A) though her lesbianism is possible, it isn't definitely proven in anything I've ever read--and this was the most heavily-covered crime of the 1890s, and it's still very popular. I'm not saying she wasn't gay. I'm just saying it isn't established fact. She did provably live with an actress from NH and NY for awhile at Maplecroft, but that doesn't mean she was heavily active as a gay woman. Had she been, someone would've proven it so. No one did, and no one has. And, B) Her possible lesbianism doesn't matter in terms of whether she committed the murders. She definitely and provably did, and her being gay actually didn't have anything to do with it. I'll come back to that.

The biggest difference of this movie, compared to other movies/shows/books, etc., is that Lizzie killed Abby while naked. John Douglas, in his book The Cases That Haunt Us, doubts that she did. (He mentions the movie, and the Elizabeth Montgomery flick.) He says No simply because Victorian women of a high class wouldn't do such a thing. I agree with almost everything Douglas has said about any crime or culprit in any of his books, but I disagree here. The problem with that logic is that it's the same thought the all-male jury had when they voted Lizzie not guilty. They simply couldn't believe a Victorian woman could commit these murders. They were very wrong. There was definitely a temporary insanity going on with Lizzie that day, and crazed people do things they wouldn't normally do, by definition. Now, this doesn't mean that she did kill Abby while naked, but it also doesn't mean she didn't. Being naked solves the problem of quickly washing in a basin (the house didn't have a tub or shower, or piping of any kind; Andrew was a miser in many ways), burning the clothes in the stove or fireplace, and re-dressing. Ultimately this doesn't matter; there's plenty of evidence that she killed Abby Borden. But the movie goes into Why, beyond the financial reasons.

The movie shows Bridget, the housekeeper, as a lover of Lizzie's, which is almost definitely false. It shows Bridget stripping naked to kill Andrew because he'd been sexually assaulting her. (And of failing to kill him, so Lizzie did, instead.) This is also not a proven thing, though it is a very commonly expressed option. It was common at the time for some wealthy men to assault the hired help. The movie also insinuates that he'd been doing the same to Lizzie beforehand. This has also never been proven, though it was not unheard of. In fact, it's a bit of an 1890s Victorian stereotype. But commonality isn't proof. John Douglas thinks it's possible that he did maybe assault Lizzie. I've read that in a few places, and that her kleptomania, the overkill, and other behaviors were indicative of that. But it's never been proven, and commonality isn't proof. I like to stick to the facts. And, again, I think the overkill could've been due solely to the proven fact that Andrew was leaving Abby almost everything in the will, and snubbing his daughters. This also explains why Abby was killed first, by an hour-and-a-half. His last existing will stated that in his demise, Abby got everything, but that if she deceased first, the money goes to his daughters. Which is what happened. Had he died first, the money immediately goes to Abby, and if she dies, even moments later, the money goes to her family--and Lizzie and Emma get nothing. That was reason enough for the overkill, IMO. Provably, before and after the murders, Lizzie cared a lot for her perceived social standing. An awful lot. For example, after the acquittal, she and her sister had millions. She could've gone anywhere in the world and started over. She could've lived in luxury anywhere. Changed her name. Become a new person. Been loved by new people. Instead, she returns to Fall River, buys Maplecroft and has that name engraved on the stairs and a gate--unusual for the time, even amongst the very rich--and lives on the hill, where she'd provably said a ton of times that she always wanted to be. It's just blocks from the modest house/murder scene. And the town ignored her. And she never left.

I'll backtrack for a second. It's almost definitely not true that Bridget and Lizzie were lovers for a few reasons. First, there were no secrets in that house, and nobody proved they were lovers. (Admittedly, it's also possible that nobody from law enforcement ever asked. Such questions were not asked--and the law enforcement did a good job here. Even though 90% of the city's police were at Rocky Point that day!) Second, Bridget would never have jeopardized her job like that. Plenty of evidence showed that she needed it badly, and that she liked working there. Which leads to, third, she and the two sisters have not been proven to actually get along. Lizzie and Emma called her Maggie, after the former housekeeper, and that may also have been a possibly-negative name for Irish help in general. Andrew and Emma called her by her actual name, and there's a ton of evidence that she really liked and respected Emma. And Bridget was not one who would lie well enough to get away with it. And she almost definitely wasn't in the house at all when either of them were murdered. I'll get back to that.

So, about the time of the murder, and the suspects. I've never read anywhere how incredibly convenient it was that Lizzie was the only one in the house at the time. If I were to write a book about all this--which I hope to hell I will--I would focus on how much Emma, Bridget and maybe (but probably not) Uncle John had to know about the murders in advance. I say this because a) Emma went to see friends in Fairhaven for a few days before the morning of the murders. Okay, she did this often, but it's still a coincidence that she and Bridget and Uncle John were all out of the house at the same time. But it's also been proven that Emma waited a few days to return when she was informed of the murders. There were three or four train trips between Fall River and Fairhaven before she finally took one. You get the call--yes, a phone call--that your father and step-mother have been murdered, and you...wait a few days to return? Seems like she wanted it all to blow over a bit, to get her bearings, to rehearse what she was going to say and do, doesn't it? And b) Bridget was washing windows and hanging up laundry the whole day. Sure, washing all the windows of the house is an all-day job, but she is coincidentally doing them on this day. And, she was violently ill that day, provably throwing up lots of times that day. Whether it was because of another failed all-family (or, accidentally, for Bridget) poisoning, or whether it was because Andrew was so cheap, he'd made everyone eat bad mutton stew for a few days (both have been proven; Lizzie went to three or four places that week to buy poison, which she said she needed to kill lice on capes and coats. Every store proprietor refused to sell it to her--because she'd bought some weeks before, and because you needed a prescription at the time to buy poison for any reason, and she never had one)--still, do you climb ladders and stand in the August heat all day if you're nauseous and throwing up all day? You do if you have to be out of the house and seen by others, right? Because she was seen by neighbors and by people on the busy street. The house was sandwiched between other homes and the busy street, and still is. And, c) Uncle John was again walking around town that day, as he had the previous few days he'd stayed over. He'd been doing small errands for Andrew, his brother, and he'd also just been hanging around town. But the day of the murders, when he approached the house, he was seen lingering outside for a few hours, eating pears from their tree, standing around the yard, talking to people. You see tons of townspeople, and the police and doctors, at your brother's house, where you've been a few days, and you don't break down, cry, yell, push past people to get inside, to see if everyone's all right? Seems just like Emma in Fairhaven, doesn't it? 

Emma and Bridget had a life-long falling out with Lizzie. Bridget, after she was brought back from the inquest and testifying, packed up, spent time with people in the city, and ultimately moved to Montana. (My novel starts there. Bridget had gotten deathly sick at some point, and told a loved one she had something about the case to confess. But she got better before she did, and apparently never again spoke of it.) Emma moved in with Bridget in Maplecroft for awhile. She left during the time Lizzie had tons of parties there for her actress lover--who also left her quickly. Emma moved to NH and lived in solitude, unmarried and without lovers or children, just as Lizzie did. They'd also had an earlier falling out while Lizzie was in prison awaiting trial, but reconciled before they split again.

So the movie doesn't show any of that. It focuses on the unnecessary (to evidence and to history), possible gayness of Lizzie and Bridget. Some nice touches in the movie include:

--using the same hatchet that Andrew had used on her favorite birds when she'd broken into his office and into Abby's room and stolen jewelry. The killing of the birds is a possibly apocryphal story that John Douglas didn't think actually happened. Andrew was said to be cheap, cold and cruel, but not necessarily a killer, of animals or otherwise. I agree, because I think he'd be too cheap to sacrifice eggs and meat later. Anyway, that same hatchet was then washed thoroughly by Lizzie, and then she used it to kill more birds, so that when it was found, the blood tested would just be the birds'. The movie shows her breaking off the wooden handle and burning that, to get rid of the fingerprints.

This is awesome stuff! It explains the real hatchet that was found and put into evidence as the murder weapon, minus the shaft. The labs did test it and it did have just birds' blood and hair on it. This did make the police look bad at the actual trial. This is great stuff, except--could Lizzie be as CSI aware as we are today? Could she have known to do that, knowing the police would find it, test it, and look bad, thereby making her look more innocent? I don't think so. I'm not saying she wasn't dumb or calculating; I'm saying nobody in 1893 would know to do this, for these reasons. But that's a nice irony, using the same hatchet as Andrew had to kill him, and then to hide her guilt by killing her favorite birds with it, as he is said to have done. But I don't think so. Could she have done this, in a fit of frenzy, just in case? Maybe. If so, she was lucky. But during the investigation and the trial, she had in fact been very lucky. Today, the labs would find microscopic particles of their blood on it. Or, the police just got unlucky and bagged the wrong hatchet. There had to be others. Or, maybe she just got rid of it somewhere entirely.

--after killing Andrew, in a moment of love and pity, she placed a pillow, and then his folded coat, beneath his very bloody head. This is great, too. There had never been a pillow beneath his head, just his folded jacket, and this has perplexed us for over a hundred years. Would a miser infamous for his cheapness fold his expensive coat like a pillow and take a nap on it, awkwardly, in a half-seated position, on the couch? Investigators say No, but the evidence shows that he did. He'd been whacked with the hatchet while his head was on the folded coat, close to the arm of the couch, while his feet were still on the floor, like he'd just passed out. This was very possibly the case, as he'd also been sick from his own ripe mutton stew (and maybe a little poison) and he'd just returned from overseeing a few of his businesses and property, on a very hot day. He could've just sat down, realized he was going to pass out, and folded his coat and half-lied down and passed out. It's plausible. But what this movie shows, that he was killed while simply sitting there, and in the process he'd fallen sideways with his feet still on the floor, and that Lizzie had lovingly placed the coat beneath his head afterwards--Man, that just fits his personality better, and it's just a helluva nice touch. Haven't you ever fallen asleep on an arm of a couch when you can't find a pillow? Have you put a coat or a backpack beneath your head moments before you passed out? I've done both. Behaviorists and profilers like John Douglas (and I'm an acolyte) would like that, too. He's shown a ton of times how when someone kills a loved one, they do something loving and personal--like but a blanket over the body, cover the face, fold the hands over the stomach, or in this case, give the father a pillow that he wouldn't have given himself.

Well, that's it! Thanks for reading my geek-out about Lizzie Borden and the case. Lizzie is currently streaming on HBOMax.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

I'm Baaaaack...

Yes, I'm back, after a few years. Lotsa crap happened, as I'm sure it did to you. There may be some changes to this blog, to the format, or I may move it elsewhere, but I'm back. To all those who were fans of those blog, I hope you're still around. To anyone else, seeing this for the first time: Welcome. Check out other posts and other pages. I'll be posting here, frequently, soon.

I've read a lot of books in the meantime, of course. All of Stephen King's, all of which were good. Compulsively readable, as I've been saying for years. The Outsider series was good, much better than the book, which at least wasn't terrible. Fairy Tale was okay. Not great.

The best lately, off of my tired head, was The Witches. Read that if you haven't. Stacy Schiff, I believe. I'll be posting more soon. It's good to be back.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Slow Burn by Ace Atkins: A Book Review

Not too much to say about this Ace Atkins effort. Pretty good. Not bad. He's done better. I've read a lot worse from writers hired by the Parker Estate. (Are you hearing me, Michael Brandman?)

This one is a comfortable pair of slippers for those who've read all of the Spenser novels. It fits in, and does not detract, from it. It doesn't add to it, either, exactly, but that's okay. That's not why people read #44 of a single series, is it? For something very different?

It was a little jarring to read that Spenser has had a knee replacement, though. Not quite as bad as Superman needing dentures, but still an unwelcome reminder that even our heroes get old. Spenser won't be keeping up with any long-distance runners (a la Crimson Joy), I guess. Susan Silverman, by contrast, seems to be getting younger, thinner, sexier. This is a glaring inconsistency that you'll go along with, because who wants to hear that Spenser's had a knee replacement, and that Susan needs to wear Depends? What's next, Hawk swinging around his walker and whining about taxes?

So it was pretty good. Not especially memorable. Not bad. A comfy, if worn, pair of slippers.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Book Review: The Girl Who Lived Twice by David Lagercrantz

Photo: The hardcover's cover, from Goodreads

Very, very good book, a bit of an improvement over Lagercrantz's previous in this series, which I didn't like as much. (To be fair, I really loved his first one, taking over for Larsson.) I'm not totally thrilled with the writing of the ending, though the ending itself was fine. But that's probably just my preference. The reader will have to judge for him/herself. I guess it depends on how you mind, or don't, how an author blatantly stops the progress of an action sequence to show characters talking about something important. It's done not to info-dump--though it may come across as that here--but to artificially create cliffhangers that keep the pages turning. That's a device that Nordic Noir takes to an extreme, and it's done here. I dealt with it, but didn't prefer it. Others may be more, or less, bothered.

For beginning novelists, which I still think I am, despite the many (over and over) I've written, take a look at the structure. The Prologue begins like any of the many police procedurals on TV: with the death of a character that starts the plot rolling. I'm really interested about this one because as I read, it became clear fast that this book could've started with any number of scenes, including the deaths during a blizzard on a mountainside, or maybe Salander's attempt on her sister. I think most authors would've started there, even in a prologue. That didn't happen here, because the main plot is that of the murder shown, which leads to Blomkvist's appearance, and not that of Salander's conflict with her sister, which ends up engulfing everyone at the end. It's also up to the reader as to which one he finds more intriguing, but it explains the split-screen writing at the end. This is strange, as the main characters essentially get ensnared in the subplot, and the minor characters end up resolving the main plot. Weird, but interesting, if you're into reading into writer's choices.

I gave this 4 stars, rather than 5, because of this oddity. It wasn't handled badly, just strangely. As for the book itself, there's a lot going on here, maybe too much, and I can't help but feel that the author could've held off the plot-string involving Salander's family, as it seems more tacked-on here. The main mystery is interesting enough, but I also understand why Lagercrantz did it: It ends the second trilogy's plot-string, as if maybe the series itself will end and he felt he had to wrap this up. Maybe he's got a different plot-string for another trilogy already outlined, ready to go. I don't know, but it seemed largely unnecessary, except that each of these books is "A Lisbeth Salander Novel" and not "A Mikael Blomkvist Novel" or anything else. She is the main plot, not whatever mystery is given to us. I get that, and I don't, and I can abide by it, and I don't like it, all at the same time.

The cooly distant tone and writing are staples of Nordic Noir, so I was good with them. A little more disconcerting is how Blomkvist--a writer for a successful news and politics magazine--is treated like a rockstar. Everyone knows who he is, and he's stopped on the street for autographs. I know the Nordic countries have much higher literacy and readership numbers than does the U.S., but this has always struck me as off in this series, in all six books. War correspondents and writers of great importance should be treated like rockstars, but they're not. Nobody knows them. I like to think of large crowds suddenly stopping James Ellroy on the street as he's hailing a cab, clamoring for his autograph, but that doesn't happen. Yet Blomkvist is mentioned by name and image on TV, and he's clearly a celebrity in his own Millennium universe, but more than anything else in this series, that's always been a head-scratcher to me. He's a pale, portly figure who woman trip over to sleep with, too, but...well, you get the idea. You're okay with all that, or you wouldn't be reading the 6th book in the series by now. But it's all an eye-roller for me, and I just had to say so.

Ultimately this one is well worth your money. Salander, despite it being her series, is hardly in it but for the beginning and for the end, and she doesn't say more than 20 words in the whole book, but you're used to that by now, too. Yet I'd be okay with giving her more to say and do in the next one. The last few sentences of this one hint that maybe the author thinks so, too. Read and enjoy. 

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Book Review: The Institute by Stephen King

Photo Credit: The Hardcover's Cover, from Goodreads

I've got all of King's books, and I've been writing that his stuff lately is okay, but that we need to accept that the genius is...resting. Producing, but resting. I've been writing that his stuff is "compulsively readable" for so long now, I can't remember when that wasn't the best that I had to say. REVIVAL was a rare exception, but for a long time before that, and now for a long time after, "compulsively readable," and that I read his newest book in X number days, were the best I could say. But then I read that The New York Times, and that Kirkus, had given THE INSTITUTE rave reviews. They said he was back to form, that he hadn't written about kids this well since IT (but with the release of IT Part 2, what else would they say?), and that this novel was extremely well structured--all rare positive review bits, especially from the NYT and Kirkus, who are not always enamored with King's stuff. So I bought it, as I would've anyway, because I own all of his books in hardcover, and because I knew I'd read it swiftly (check) and that I'd at least find it compulsively readable. But this time--THIS TIME!!!--I felt confident I'd have more positive things to say.

And, well...I read THE INSTITUTE's 561 pages in about 2 1/2 days.'s compulsively readable.

It isn't IT, and he doesn't write about kids as well in this as he did in IT. It's possible that this is the best he's written about them since IT, but how many of his recent books have only been about kids? Maybe, none of them---since IT.

The book starts off with a drifter, and a small town, and how the drifter ingratiates himself in this small town...but King has done that millions of times, and can possibly write that now in his sleep. (Which he possibly did, here.) Then it switches rather abruptly to The Institute, which seems suspiciously like The Shop, from FIRESTARTER. But this ain't FIRESTARTER, and the baddies from The Shop are much more so than the ones here. (There are similarities, too. There's a John Rainbird character here, of the opposite gender, but Rainbird was a badass that nobody here approaches.) Nobody here is Charlie McGee, either. Those were better written characters than anyone here. I mean that in the kindest of all positive ways.

This book is really about Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil." The whole book, in fact, could've been from the point of view of those who work for The Institute, and maybe that would've been a better book. (Sounds like a helluva good idea to me.) Here, there's a cleaning lady who could've been fleshed out better, and at the end there's an 81-year old woman who seemed very interesting. Why did she stick around, and with such gusto? THE INSTITUTE tries to go there, but mostly doesn't, which is a shame. The baddest badass of them all gets short shrift at the end, to the extent that King himself suddenly seems to give up on her, and all she gets is the other characters calling her "the queen bitch." She was badder than that, and deserved better, if you know what I mean. She could've been this book's Rainbird. The one who gets that honor doesn't deserve it, and in fact seems kind of lame. At the end, you won't care too much what happens to him.

In the meantime, the kids are drawn out well enough, and you will care about what happens to them. But, A) they're kids, so that's maybe automatic, and B) it's really their book, so they get the most airtime. Still, you get caught up in the going's-on, and it is compelling in a slow-moving train kind of way. It'll pass the time, and it is compulsively readable.

But it could've been so much more. The people who work at The Institute have their reasons for doing so, and King strongly insinuates that these reasons are compelling--but never appropriate, of course. The ends don't justify the means, here, and that's really the point of the book. But why do such people work for such banal evil? Many of them are obviously deranged, but some are maybe almost good people, or those who could've been. This book could've been essentially the same story, with that theme been better pondered and shown. It's never answered, not even close, but King seems like he wants to go there, that he wants to try and answer it--but then just drops it.

And so ultimately it's a good read. 561 pages in just short of 3 days means the book is good on some level. Yet maybe this is what's lacking in King's work now. The why. The big themes. King was never "deep," per se, which he takes pride in, and on some levels he's right. He wants to entertain more than he wants to instruct (he could've stayed on as an English teacher if that's all he'd wanted), but the fact remains that THE SHINING, CARRIE, IT and many others had more depth to them, more heft, without ever sacrificing story. Lately his stuff is about 95% story, to the exclusion of perhaps all else, and that's why they seem lesser. CARRIE, for example, never tried to explain how religious mania could screw up a family and a kid, but it sure did show it very well. THE SHINING showed how a very, very flawed man could redeem himself to save his wife and son. THE SHINING therefore had a hefty thing to say about personal redemption. I could go on...

King's stuff now frankly just lacks this heft. It's all story, all the time, and it doesn't have too much to show, or to say, about things that it could, and should, show and say about. In this case, Arendt's "banality of evil." That's too bad, because it could've easily gone there, and it would've made this book a lot better. It's not as bad as the Bill Hodges fiascoes, won't want to read this one again. It'll sit in my bookcase with all the others, probably won't come out of it again.

Too bad. THE INSTITUTE is okay, but it could've been one of his better ones in a long, long time.