Sunday, 21 June 2015

Arsenic and Old Lace, Revisited

In January 2015 I read and reviewed Caroline Overington's Last Woman Hanged (2014), the true crime story of convicted murderer Louisa Collins. I greatly enjoyed the story of the legal battles to convict Collins and the insights into Australia's judicial history.

Historian and genealogist Carol Baxter has published her own account of the trials and execution of Louisa Collins in Black Widow (2015). I attended Baxter's book launch on 10 June and heard her speak about the impressive research she had done to uncover the story and her interest in this part of Australian history. Not only did she mine the archives and comprehensively scour news reports and transcripts, but she also sought expert advice on colonial law to confirm her understanding of the court proceedings in the context of the time in which they occurred.

Black Widow unfolds like a murder mystery, starting with Collins illness and death. If the reader was unaware of Louisa Collins fate, the court room dramas of two inquests and four trials would leave the reader anxious as to whether or not she would be convicted. At the book launch Baxter was keen to ensure she did not give too much away so that the reader would find out for themselves that Collins was convicted and sentenced to hang.

The focus on Collins' legal battles is extremely interesting. Against the backdrop of state politics, the rising women's movement, and the overseas horror of the Jack the Ripper murders, the Collins' case is of historical significance. Baxter compares the public sentiment towards Collins as that of Lindy Chamberlain in more recent times, which was an interesting parallel.

Originally to be called The Lucretia Borgia of Botany Bay, publication of Black Widow was delayed and the title changed when Overington's book was published first. The six month gap between the books has allowed for each to be assessed independently, but also compared where required.

The similarities between the Overington and Baxter books are obvious - both concern the same case and have used much of the same primary sources for their research. I preferred Baxter's writing style to Overington and enjoyed the way in which the story unfolded in Black Widow. However, I do not share Baxter's conclusion that Collins committed these murders beyond reasonable doubt. Overington presented compelling evidence of other means of arsenic poisoning and pokes so many holes in the case that it I remain unconvinced of her guilt.

Baxter considers Collins to be 'Australia's first serial killer' but I am not convinced. Firstly, how many deaths does one need to be responsible for in order to be a serial killer?  Even if she did kill both of her husbands, I would have thought two murders does not a serial killer make.

To be convicted of murder there needs to be both actus reus (the guilty act) and mens rea (the guilty mind). With the death of her first husband, Charles Andrews, there is a motive for murder (to be free to be with Collins) but the murderous act is largely circumstantial. With the death of her second husband, again there is circumstantial evidence of the guilty act, but what is the motive?

Regardless of whether or not she actually committed these crimes, the legal case against Collins was fundamentally flawed and the fact that she had three hung juries before conviction is an unprecedented abuse of the legal system.

I am happy to have read both these books and would recommend them both... although I would encourage a gap between reading so as to enjoy each independently.

My review of Overington's Last Woman Hanged is also on this blog, as is a summary of Overington's session at the Sydney Writers' Festival on capital punishment.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

A Trip to Italy

Watching news from this year's Cannes Film Festival, I was intrigued by a new Todd Haynes film staring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Carol (2015) is based on a book by Patricia Highsmith, published first in 1952 as The Price of Salt under pseudonym Claire Morgan. So I started combing my bookshelves to see whether I had this in my collection. Instead I found The Talented Mr Ripley (1955) which I immediately started to read and could not put down.

Tom Ripley is a small time scammer living in New York. He is rather unhappy and unsettled, with no real friends or employment. One day he is approached by Mr Herbert Greenleaf, owner of a shipping company, who wants Ripley to travel to Mongibello  Italy to persuade Greenleaf's son Dickie to return to America. Ripley has only a passing acquaintance with Dickie but is keen to be funded to travel to Europe.

In Italy, Ripley meets Dickie, befriends him and explains the errand he is on for Dickie's father. Dickie is happy in Italy - painting, swimming, and spending lazy afternoons drinking with his friend Marge Sherwood. Ripley quickly immerses himself in Dickie's world, much to the dismay of Marge and eventually Dickie himself.

Things turn sour and, when Ripley feels Dickie is about to unfriend him,  Ripley kills Dickie on a boating trip. He then assumes Dickie's identity, moves to Rome, living off the regular cheques sent from Dickie's trust fund, and cutting off ties with Marge and others in Mongibello.

Ripley, as Dickie, then has to hide away from people in his old life and is constantly afraid of being discovered. When the police begin to try and track down Dickie, Ripley shifts between being himself and pretending to be Dickie. It is a high stakes game he is playing, as the police begin to suspect Dickie has been involved in criminal behaviour or has killed himself.

The novel quickens pace as Ripley struggles to stay ahead of the police, Dickie's friends and family, and his own paranoia. Will he be caught? Will he inadvertently give himself away?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the complex character Highsmith has created. Ripley is not just a common sociopath. He loves art, literature and language. He longs to fit in, but he is uncomfortable in his own skin and wants to be someone else. He is gay, but in a time when this was not accepted, he cannot be himself. He longs to be loved, if not as Ripley then as someone else, even though he knows he can never really escape being Tom Ripley.

In 1999 Anthony Minghella adapted this novel for the screen in a beautiful, critically acclaimed movie staring Matt Damon as Ripley, Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge and Judd Law as Dickie. I have not seen that film since it came out, but I remember it for its beautiful scenery and compelling performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Freddie Miles) and Cate Blanchett (as Meredith Logue - who does not appear in the book). I will have to watch this again now that I have read the book to see whether it matched my memory. Now that I have traveled to Italy, I am keen to see it again and be reminded of the places I have been.

Highsmith continued the Ripley tale in a series of novels, known as the Ripliad:

  • Ripley Under Ground (1970)
  • Ripley's Game (1974)
  • The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980)
  • Ripley Under Water (1991)
It will be interesting to see how Ripley has fared over many years and how Highsmith has written this character over almost forty years.