Book Review: Dead Girls

Dead Girls, by Selva Almada (translated by Annie McDermott), investigates the unresolved murders of young women in the author’s home country – Argentina. Focusing on three girls murdered in the early 1980s, it is shocking although, sadly, unsurprising.

“Being a woman meant being prey.”

The author interviewed family and friends of the deceased, adding in her own experiences of growing up in a provincial town at a time when even phones in homes were rare. With few broadcast TV channels, news was mostly local. The author found this suffocating. Nevertheless, she felt mostly safe. The society she lived in chose not to acknowledge known incidents of domestic violence. It was drummed into her that if she dressed in a certain way, spoke to strangers or stayed out late she could be raped – and it would be her fault for putting herself in that situation.

The writing style is fragmented, jumping between investigation and informed opinion on each case. Lists of other unresolved murders of women are included. Femicide is far from unusual.

“My friends and I were still alive, but we could have been Andrea, Maria Luisa or Sarita. We were just luckier.”

Almada’a personal history is interwoven with her research into the dead girls’ lives – a reimagining of their last days. She uncovers horrific tales of gangs of boys raping individual girls with impunity, and of older men paying for a young girl to have sex with. The accounts are searing and disturbing although never voyeuristic. Life is not portrayed as happy for anyone mentioned.

An interview with the brother of one of the murdered girls highlights the arrogance of men in the country. This does not lead to any sense of fulfilment – several suicides are mentioned. Certain family members chose not to meet with the author, preferring to put what happened behind them. Others agreed to a visit then appear to have rehearsed what they were willing to share.

There are elements of the narrative that I found odd – perhaps a cultural difference. The author regularly consults a psychic – as do other characters featured – and gives credence to what is said.

That aside, this is a clear-eyed and compelling account of a journalistic investigation into murders for which no one has been punished. That they are a drop in an ocean of similar cases makes for a chilling read.

Dead Girls is published by Charco Press.

Interview with Piu Eatwell, author of Black Dahlia Red Rose

Author Photo by Carsten Wilde

Today I am delighted to welcome true crime writer Piu Eatwell to my blog. Piu’s latest novel, Black Dahlia Red Rose, solves the seventy year old mystery of who murdered aspiring starlet Elizabeth Short, whose body was found dumped on waste ground in a Los Angeles suburb in January 1947 (you may read my review of the book here). Piu has provided fascinating answers to the questions I sent her for this post. I hope that you enjoy reading them as much as I did.

 

1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background? 

Hard to know where to start on that one! Well, I’m British but have lived in Paris, France, for over ten years now.  I’m married to an Englishman, with three children who were born in France and are growing up here.  I started off writing books about life as an English woman in France, but have moved on to crime writing as it’s where I see my true vocation as a writer. Black Dahlia, Red Rose is my fifth book: my last was a real-life Edwardian thriller and detective story, The Dead Duke

2. Can you tell us about Black Dahlia Red Rose? 

Black Dahlia, Red Rose is the true-life story of one of the most famous unsolved murders of all time: the murder of 22 year old Hollywood starlet Elizabeth Short, whose bisected body was found tossed on a pavement in Los Angeles in January 1947.  In writing the book I went back to original sources – contemporary newspaper reports and police files – to reconstruct what I believe really happened in this case. 

3. What inspired the book? 

I have been long interested in Hollywood and crime, ever since researching a film for Channel 4 television about the Manson murders a while back.  In order to make that film, I spent almost a year in Los Angeles and learned a lot about the recent history of the city.  I decided I wanted to investigate another famous crime that took place in LA, and of course, the Dahlia murder must be one of the most notorious and intriguing of them all.   

 4. Your true crime books are written as stories. How much leeway do you allow yourself when documenting the facts to ensure the storytelling remains engaging? 

This is something that gives rise to misunderstanding, because a lot of people think that – because my books are written like fiction – that I am therefore making things up.  In fact, this is not at all the case.  Everything that is between quotation marks is accurately reported dialogue, taken from contemporary sources such as police interviews or memoirs.  If I describe the weather on a particular day, it is because I looked up the historical weather reports.  As such, my books are as completely accurate as more conventional non-fiction – but because they read like a novel, a lot of people don’t realize this.  It is something that I therefore explained in the introduction to Black Dahlia, Red Rose. 

5. What is your favourite part of being a writer? 

Being totally immersed in another world – and this is the case whether I am writing fiction or non-fiction.  Also, I love the process of constructing the story or plot – again, essentially the same with fiction and non-fiction, except that with non-fiction the events have already been determined, you have to decide how you are going to present them, or put them together.   

6. And your least favourite? 

I dislike the “in-between times” – as now – when I have just finished a book, and have therefore been forced to tear myself away from that world.  Until I get my next project, I feel bereft and rather lost without the magic, inner world that always accompanies me whenever I am working on a book.   

7. Do you enjoy social media? 

I think social media is a mixed blessing in that it can be a wonderful tool to reach out to readers and also to keep up with what is going on in the world of books, but it is also a dreadful distraction that often keeps me from working!  Also, one thing I dislike about social media is the culture it has fostered by which people feel they have the right to say what they like, without any of the boundaries of politeness that govern more conventional discourse, leading to trolling, harassing, etc of writers and other public figures.  Politeness is something that should be universal and from which no forum should be exempt. 

8. Do you seek out reviews of your books? 

I am always happy to encourage honest reviews of my books because that, after all, is the point of writing: it’s a form of communication, and if a book is not being discussed, it’s no longer a living thing.  Having said that, I don’t see the value to anybody of reviews that merely trash books in a thoughtless way, or the kind of Amazon review that gives a book one star because it ‘arrived late.’  Again, as I said above, social media gives everybody enormous privileges and powers, in giving each of us a voice; but along with that voice, in my view, comes a certain amount of responsibility.  

9. What do you do when you wish to treat yourself? 

Lots of things!  A glass of champagne is my unfailing treat to myself when a manuscript is finally finished and sent off to the publisher.  I also love English pork pies, Marmite, and cheddar cheese (which are difficult to find in France!!), and reading books that are not directly connected with my research (a rare treat). 

10. What books have you read and enjoyed recently? 

A very wide range: the ghost stories of M.R. James; a wonderful book on the history of ghosts and ghost-hunting called A Natural History of Ghosts by Roger Clarke (Penguin, 2012); and a powerful recent speculative horror novel, Hex by the Dutch writer Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016) – the story of a seventeeth-century witch trapped in a New England town.  

11. Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction? 

That’s a difficult one, but I suppose if I had to choose, it would be Sherlock Holmes, as I would love to figure out how his brain ticks! 

12. What question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would? 

What my guilty pleasure is.  And in case you’re interested, it’s – of all things – renovating my children’s dolls’ house!  I have everything there in miniature 1/12th scale: right down to original paintings in the hall and tiny reproductions of my own books and those of my favourite authors in the library.  A psychologist could probably get quite Freudian about it – the search for a perfect miniature world, etc….. I find it incredibly calming. 

 

This post is a stop on the Black Dahlia, Red Rose Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Black Dahlia, Red Rose is published by Coronet and is available to buy now.

Book Review: Black Dahlia Red Rose

Black Dahlia Red Rose, by Piu Eatwell, is a re-examination of a brutal murder that occured seventy years ago in America which has never been officially solved. Told as a true crime story it offers a snapshot of Los Angeles, its police department and citizens, in an era that will be familiar from film. As the author writes in her preface:

“This era is commonly visualized through the movies, as the era of film noir: a time of corrupt cops and gun-toting gangsters, cynical heroes, and bottle blondes doling out deadpan one-liners. But the slick film noir repartee belied the brutal inequalities of reality. In truth, it was a tough time after a tough war in a tough world.”

This tough world was being navigated by beautiful young women with stars in their eyes who descended on Los Angeles looking for fame. What they found instead were predatory men who viewed the aspiring starlets as expendable game.

The Black Dahlia was twenty-two year old Elizabeth Short, whose body was found dumped on waste ground in an LA suburb. She had been beaten, slashed, bled out and cut in two. The newspapers of the time were allowed access to evidence and potential suspects that would be unthinkable today. Often it was the journalists who moved the case forward. As evidence mounted it seemed that key figures within the police wished to stifle the investigation.

Unusually for the time, the LAPD employed a forensic psychologist, Dr Paul De River. He produced a profile of the killer and was subsequently contacted by a man who appeared a potential fit. There were other suspects but the most likely had powerful contacts who routinely paid the police for their cooperation. Corruption ran deep throughout the city and the Black Dahlia was one of many murders in a society that regarded its young women as objects whose purpose was to provide pleasure for others.

The story is structured in narrative form but is written using facts gleaned from documents produced throughout the original investigation. The LAPD continue to refuse to release key evidence, some of which has mysteriously disappeared. The book provides a detailed account of the crime and those tasked with apprehending a murderer. It is a search for the truth, suppressed on the remit of powerful individuals, now dead.

From the discovery of the body through to the case being finaly shelved, the reader is offered insights, fully cross-referenced and explained in footnotes, a bibliography and detailed endnotes. The story told is a lesson in the sham of 1950s supposed values, and in the lack of value placed on certain lives. The photographs at the end, drawn from evidence, are chilling.

The author has studied this evidence, consulted with experts, and drawn a conclusion as to the likely killer. As a lawyer she is well placed to undertake this task. She offers a cinematic retelling of the case that is evocative and compelling. An example of fact being even more shocking than fiction.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Coronet.

Book Review: See What I Have Done

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See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt, is a reimagined account of the notorious case of Lizzie Borden. On the morning of 4th August 1892 the mutilated bodies of Andrew Borden and his wife, Abby, were found in separate rooms of their large house in the town of Fall River, Massachusetts. They had both been murdered with what was suspected to be an axe. Andrew’s younger daughter, Lizzie, was first on the scene. His older daughter, Emma, was away from home at the time, visiting a friend. The girls’ Uncle John had been an overnight guest. Also in the house was the maid, Bridget.

The author has taken the known facts of this true crime and woven a chilling story which takes the reader inside an unhappy household where resentments run high. Events are presented through the eyes of each of the surviving key players.

Following the death of their beloved mother, Emma was tasked with caring for Lizzie, her junior by almost a decade. Lizzie was not an easy responsibility to manage. She has always felt entitled to her sister’s affection and attention. Both desire their domineering father’s love. The girls regard his remarriage as a betrayal. Andrew is a cruel and controlling figure. Despite his wealth he keeps a tight rein on all expenditure.

The oppressive heat of the summer permeates each scene. This is a house filled with adults who do not get on yet who can see no way of changing how they live. They feel hard done by, often with good cause. The hurts bubble over into heated exchanges.

The writing evokes an atmosphere dark and chilling despite the heat. Sweat blooms on constricted skin. The sounds of scraping and swallowing grate the inmates sensibilities in the brooding silences. Body odours are rife, breath rancid as food that spoils in the heat must still be eaten; waste will not be tolerated. Boredom and the prospect of endless confinement together allow grievances to fester.

The house is kept tight shut, doors locked, secrets held close. This is a respectable family in a small town. Lizzie is a Sunday School teacher, Emma dabbles in art. Their oppression is hardly unusual for the time. The murders threw a spotlight on what most worked hard to keep private.

I was aware of the Borden story from The Legend of Lizzie Borden (TV Movie 1975), a film I watched as a child. Even knowing what would happen I found this book compelling.

The story is skilfully constructed, the writing taut and evocative. The truth of the denouement may be questionned, as it has been since the conclusion of the murder trial, but this is a riveting tale that I recommend you read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.

Book Review: The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse

deadduke

The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse, by Piu Marie Eatwell, is a meticulously researched account of a true story. At the turn of the nineteenth century a legal case, ‘Druce v Portland’, evolved into the stuff of dreams for the newly emerging tabloid press. The public couldn’t get enough of the family secrets and duplicitous lives being exposed. With a duchy that included a Nottingham estate and large swathes of land in London at stake this battle for a title and the wealth that it bestowed raged for over a decade.

In 1879 the 6th Duke of Portland arrived at Welbeck Abbey in Nottingham having succeeded to the ducal seat following the death of his eccentric second cousin who had ostensibly died without having produced an heir. Twenty years later a middle aged woman approached the church courts in London asking that her late father-in-law’s coffin be exhumed. She claimed that his funeral had been a charade, that the coffin would be found to be empty, and that the man in question had been leading a double life. She claimed that this Victorian businessman, T.C. Druce, had also been the 5th Duke of Portland, that he had sired several children, and that her son should now be the Duke.

The author unfolds the story as it would have emerged at the time. She ensures that the reader understands how other contiguous events would have coloured the public’s perception of the case. With increasing literacy came a demand for a press that entertained as much as informed. Newspapers vied for readers by providing details that laid bare the duplicitous lives of a supposedly moral society. This case offered it all: secret mistresses, illegitimate children, double identities, eccentric habits, abandoned wives, and the prospect of wealth and standing beyond most people’s dreams.

The publicity surrounding the case brought witnesses and claimants from around the globe. Each of these characters is introduced complete with their circumstances, background and personal histories. As well as court transcripts and newspaper articles the author has studied birth and death records, correspondence, photographs and notes held by the police, legal teams and the Portland estate. Much of this evidence was never presented in court and was subsequently locked away, remaining classified for the next eighty years.

What can now be told is a tale as convoluted, complicated and contrary as any fictional crime novel. It is a fascinating snapshot of life at the time involving as it does the aristocracy, their staff, the emerging middle classes, those who travelled to find a better life, and the unfortunates who were abandoned penniless to cope as best they could. Laws may have changed since that time but the role of newspapers in gathering and spreading misinformation looks all too familiar as does the public’s appetite for celebrity and gossip.

This is history brought alive. Unlike so many accounts there is no glossing over the weaknesses of the wealthy. What is known is presented in fascinating detail that the reader may decide for themselves why each character acted as they did. A colourful story written with flair that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.