A Treasury of Victorian Murder Compendium II
If you haven’t had the pleasure of trying Rick Geary’s Treasury of Victorian Murder series, this new omnibus volume is a wonderful starting point. For those of us, like me, who have long recommended these explorations of sometimes-unsolved mysteries of long ago, the handsome hardcover is a delightful way to be reminded of author Rick Geary’s skill.
This substantial volume contains five books’ worth of material: The Borden Tragedy, The Mystery of Mary Rogers, The Saga of the Bloody Benders, The Case of Madeleine Smith, and The Murder of Abraham Lincoln. It’s a great value — considering typical discounts from the cover price, you get these cases for about $5 a story. (The first Compendium only contained three books: Jack the Ripper, The Fatal Bullet (about the assassination of President James A. Garfield), and The Beast of Chicago (serial killer H. H. Holmes and his murder house).) I think the thicker hardcover also better suits the material, since the classic format better matches the straightforward, old-fashioned flavor of the art and storytelling. In comparison with my previous editions, this reproduction seems darker and crisper as well.
Originally published between 1997-2007, this set of stories starts with one of the best-known unsolved murders of all time: the 1892 axe murders of Lizzie Borden’s parents. The case of Mary Rogers is less-known. She was recognized for her beauty, particularly among the customers of the cigar store where she worked, but we don’t know who killed her and dumped her body in the river. She inspired the Edgar Allan Poe story “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”.
The Benders, on the other hand, are known villains, a Kansas family who set up a remote grocery store and small inn. Visitors carrying cash who pass by are rarely seen again, until the number of disappearances cause them to flee, at which point a number of bodies are discovered on their property. The mystery here is what happened to them and where they ended up.
Madeleine Smith is a suspected poisoner in Glasgow, a privileged young woman who wanted to dispose of a secret boyfriend who has become inconvenient. After trial, her guilt is considered “not proven”. The volume concludes with the details behind the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln.
I love the way Geary opens each story with a map to set the stage and remind the reader of how places have changed from decades ago. The approach is journalistic, laying out the facts of the case and presenting the various theories so the reader can judge for herself. It’s often frustrating, not to know for sure what happened, and it’s playing to our morbid curiosity to go into such detail, so it’s important not to succumb to cynicism about human nature. It’s also easy to think “oh, we know so much more about investigation now, this kind of thing wouldn’t happen again” — but that ignores the universality of jealousy, selfishness, hatred, greed, stupidity, and other vices that cause the murders and mistakes in the first place. Each of these stories, although set long ago, involves elements we can identify with, whether the spreading of rumors or sensationalized journalism or the question of how much to trust our neighbors or the ruinous dedication of political groups to lost causes. (The publisher provided a review copy.)