Saturday, April 18, 2015

and speaking of Madeleine Smith, here's the story from Christianna Brand as Mary Ann Ashe: Alas for Her that Met Me!

Wyndham, 1976
191 pp


I have this thing for Victorian murderers and murderesses -- I don't understand why this topic is so fascinating to me, but well, it just is. As with Marie Belloc Lowndes'  Letty Lynton, Alas for her that met me! is a disguised version of the Madeleine Smith story, a case so well documented in (just to name a couple of nonfiction works) Mary S. Hartman's Victorian Murderesses and Roughead's  "To Meet Miss Madeleine Smith" in his Classic Crimes (published by NYRB). [As a sidebar, I just bought Jack House's Square Mile of Murder which also takes on Smith's case. ]  You may not recognize the name Mary Ann Ashe, but you will recognize the name of  Christianna Brand, who according to SYKM, has seventeen crime/mystery novels to her credit as well as four short-story collections.  She's also the author of the Nurse Mathilda stories, which were the basis of the 2005 movie "Nanny McPhee."

Unlike Marie Belloc Lowndes who modernized the story and moved it to England,  Ashe (as I'll refer to her in this post), chose to keep her story in Victorian-era Glascow, but she adds a strange twist to the case I didn't see coming. I won't give details just in case any vintage-crime reader is interested in this book, but the novel is set up very nicely so that  it's only near the end of the story when it hits you exactly what's actually happened here, which turns out to be a big surprise.   Getting to that point may seem a little slow and, also like Letty Lynton, Ashe's story seems to hang in the chick-lit realm for quite a while until darkness falls.  While I totally dislike romance-ish crime fiction, the folly of  l'amour does serve a purpose here and to her credit, Ashe doesn't let it ruin or take over the story.   Making just one further comparison to Lowndes' book, while both authors examine class distinction in their work, Ashe takes things a wee bit further by 1) looking at things for a while from a servant's point of view that shows that life in service wasn't always as it was in Upstairs Downstairs and 2)  examining the gradations in the system that existed in upper-class Victorian society, where, for example as in the case of the father of the main character, being x number of years away from a family fortune based on trade was actually a stigma to be lived down.

It's a fun little book that satisfied my appetite for historical crime fiction, and I most definitely appreciated the surprising twist in the story.   I'm afraid it may be a little tame for modern readers who look for a lot of action or kickass heroines in their crime, but vintage crime lovers should definitely enjoy it, especially those familiar with the Madeleine Smith case of 1857.

 And that reminds me -- while I'm a work widow this coming week, I'll be watching David Lean's 1950 black-and-white movie about this Victorian case entitled Madeleine. One of my online friends directed me to the film and now I can't wait to see it.  Getting back to the book, While I preferred Letty Lynton's ending in Lowndes' version of events, the storyline in Ashe's book was definitely better.  Oh, what the hell  -- true vintage/historical crime readers should read both of them!

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