Bleaker than bleak

For some reason, it took me ages to read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. I’ve been told it’s been very popular in book groups and it’s been shortlisted for a few literary prizes. It was one long read, but not because it was boring or dreary, far from it, I had settled into a reading malaise and just didn’t read very much.

Cover of Burial rites

This is Hannah Kent’s first novel and it is based on fact. Burial Rites tells the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be put to death in Iceland, in 1829.

A servant with a past as bleak as an Icelandic winter, Agnes is found guilty for her part in the murder of two men, one of whom was her employer and in the book, her lover as well.

The author has used a great deal of factual information and certainly done her homework to make details as accurate as possible, but also filled in the emotional details and made a sympathetic case for Agnes’ innocence with fictional aspects. Agnes is regarded still today in Iceland as an evil woman of almost witch-like proportions.

I loved the book, it was very evocative of the landscape, time period and people, and Agnes became very real to me, a woman whose circumstances overwhelmed her control over her own life and future. Knowing it was based on a person who existed and met such a tragic end, made it all the more riveting.

Since becoming obsessed with Vikings through the television series, and Danish crime dramas such as The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen, anything set up there in the cold Northern climes piques my interest. The intense, dark and never ending winters, the hard lives and meagre existences hold a great deal of fascination.

I look forward to Kent’s next book.

The sacrifice

Cover of The sacrifice




These words stayed with me as I read The Sacrifice. This is a sharp and pointy book. It caught my attention. I was curious from the beginning as the first words sent shivers down my spine.

Seen my girl? My baby? 

She came like a procession of voices though she was but a singular voice. She came along Camden Avenue in the Red Rock neighborhood of inner-city Pascayne, twelve tight compressed blocks between the New Jersey Turnpike and the Passaic River. In the sinister shadow of the high looming Pitcairn Memorial Bridge she came. Like an Old Testament mother she came seeking her lost child.

Who is the sacrifice in this story and what is being sacrificed? Is it Ednetta Frye the despairing mother seeking justice for her “young for her age, and trustin” daughter? Is it Sybilla Frye, the daughter, beaten and left to die in the derelict cellar of a disused building? Or Ignes Iglesias, the Hispanic (not black enough) woman cop sent to interview Sybilla at the hospital? Can it be Jerold Zahn, the young white police officer who is accused of raping Sybilla? Or Anis Schutt, the stepfather, who has a violent and dangerous past? What about the influential Mudrick brothers who stir up racial hatred after the attack? What are the consequences of their actions?

Joyce Carol Oates sets her narrative in the fictional town of Pascayne where skin colour, poverty, crime, and violence creates victims. This is a story full of powerful and convincing voices. The multiple perspectives establish empathy and sorrow for the characters and challenge perceptions along the way. Racial tension exudes from every page creating an edgy and evocative read.

Even though The Sacrifice is a work of fiction it is based on fact. I chose not to read about the actual case leaving this sharp point for later. I’m glad I did. The story became a national sensation and divided a country. This book will divide readers.

Jack the Ripper

Book cover of the autobiography of jack the ripperJack the Ripper has finally, conclusively, definitely been identified (again). 126 years after the murders that shocked the world, we’ve finally found our man (or woman). Was it Scotland Yard? Was it the CIA? Was it rediscovered CCTV footage taken an amazing 54 years before CCTV was invented? No, it was “armchair detective” Russell Edwards who has just published Naming Jack the Ripper. Edwards used DNA from a shawl to positively (?) identify Aaron Kosminski as the killer. Public interest in Jack the Ripper has never really waned and we have a good selection of the books published; both non-fiction (I’m using that term loosely) and fiction including the acclaimed Ripper Street TV series. I’ve read them all and here is my list of the top 5 Jack the Ripper suspects, from least to most preposterous:

  1. Renowned artist Walter Sickert was called out by mystery writer Patricia Cornwell in the optimistically named Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed. Cornwell used DNA from some Ripper letters to prove that Sickert was Jack the Ripper. To my mind, she just proved that maybe he wrote some Ripper letters, or maybe not, testing DNA that old can be problematic.
  2. Another artist, Frank Miles, was accused in Thomas Toughill’s The Ripper Code, although you may have already known this if you’d read The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oscar Wilde helpfully left some clues to Miles true identity encoded alien-messages-in-pyramids-style in the tome. If you think that is crazy enough to be higher up on this list, you have obviously not read many Jack the Ripper books.
  3. If you are going to be name a random historical figure as a serial killer, why not aim high? Prince Albert Victor Christian Edward has been named in numerous volumes but Melvyn Fairclough’s The Ripper & the Royals is the one you can pick up from our libraries.
  4. Book cover of uncle jackTony Williams had a esteemed distant-ancestor, Sir John Williams. Sir John was a successful obstetrician, doctor to the royal family and founded The National Library of Wales. Tony did a bit of research and found a smoking-gun in the Library archive, well actually it was a rusted-scalpel. Many extrapolations later and Uncle Jack was the result. I really thought that was the low-point until the next title appeared…
  5. On the plus side, someone realised there was no way Sir John Williams could be Jack the Ripper, on the negative side, they think it is his wife. Poor Mary Williams, all she did was get married to a book-loving doctor and now she is named as a Ripper suspect. At least they didn’t have children, because if I was one of there descendants I would be pretty peeved about the whole thing.

Will we ever know the truth about the identity of Jack the Ripper? If I did, I wouldn’t write it in this blog post. As the above titles show, there’s money to be made and no lack of publishers ready to print any crazy theory someone is willing to propose.

The Murder that Shocked the World!

My latest book odyssey started with Roberta’s blog about a meeting with the author of a new book. Peter Graham, a Canterbury barrister turned crime writer, had just written a new investigative book  about the Parker/Hulme Murder. This matricide in 1954, in our very own city, caused shock and unease  in quiet Christchurch at the time, and continues to intrigue and fascinate people to this day.

So Brilliantly Clever weaves together known and little known facts with details of the two murderers’ early and later lives. Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme violently murdered Pauline’s mother Honorah Parker in Victoria Park, using a brick in a stocking. The question of why has kept many, including academics, playwrights, novelists, journalists, filmmakers and the general populace both here and world-wide trying to come up with an answer.

I found the book both disturbing and enlightening. I had watched Peter Jackson’s film based on the case, Heavenly Creatures, and had always been interested. But  in this book, I learnt about many of the background nuances of their personalities, what happened at the trial, who the key players were and what happened to many involved, after the trial was over. It also gives an interesting snapshot of Christchurch in the mid-fifties.

I decided to immerse myself. After reading the book, I re-watched Heavenly Creatures and read an Anne Perry novel. Juliet Hulme was spirited off overseas after serving her sentence and eventually settled in Scotland where she writes under the name Anne Perry. I also watched a documentary titled Anne Perry- Interiors, that is well worth hunting out. Pauline Parker now lives a hermit’s life in the Orkney Islands. I also plan to read Parker and Hulme: A Lesbian View  by Julie Glamuzina and Alison Laurie.

I’m not sure I’m any closer to deciding for myself why these two 15-year-old girls committed this horrible crime, there are so many factors that come into play. If this case has ever interested you or you are interested in local history, this book is well worth a read.