Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Arsenic and Axes: Blood in the Parlor by Dorothy Dunbar

Blood in the Parlor by Dorothy Dunbar (1964)

While half the fun of the Zombie Summer Reading Program is finding the weird books yourself, when the recommendation comes from Donna Tartt, it's worth following up on. A recent Village Voice feature asked writers to list their favorite obscure books, and while there were many fine contributions, Tartt's caught my eye:

My mother has had this book since I was a little girl, but no one else I know has ever heard of it, and it's almost impossible to find. Each of the 12 stories is an account of a 19th-century murder told with a light, macabre sense of humor. I'd love to see it back in print with illustrations by Edward Gorey.

I was intrigued, and delighted to find a very ratty copy available at the Los Angeles Public Library.

Like the inimitable Edmund Lester Pearson, Dunbar has a very particular vision of what makes a "good murder." Weary of "I'll-blow-your-guts-out" detective stories and 20th century crime in general, Dunbar longs for the evildoers of a more gracious age, a time when murderers were more likely to employ an axe or a bottle of chloroform than a revolver. But the 19th century crimes she chooses to write about interest her because of their distinctive Victorian quality. Dunbar writes, "In most Victorian murders, murder is the act of removing an ugly fact to maintain a pleasant fiction, the grim reality of a dead body, or bodies, contradicting the fantasy of high-flown or obscure motives."

Medical students are likely criminals, as evidenced by the tale of Scott Jackson, a Cincinnati dental student who dispatched his inconveniently pregnant mistress, saving her head for his own research, or by Theodore Durrant, a monstrous medical student/church librarian who seduced pretty young women and stashed their bodies in the well-ventilated church belfry.

Though Dunbar isn't so obsessed with murderesses as Pearson, the Victorian period certainly had a number of fascinating ones, including Florence Maybrick, who may actually have been innocent, and Lydia Sherman, who certainly wasn't. And of course, no book would be complete without some discussion of Lizzie Borden, whose guilt Dunbar doubts not for a moment.

Blood in the Parlor was Dunbar's only book, which is a shame because she's an intelligent, wry, and very funny writer. In her account of the Lizzie Borden murders, Dunbar writes,

"There are many elements of horror in the Borden case, but one of the worst was the August fourth breakfast - mutton, sugar cakes, coffee, and mutton broth."

Her introductions to each chapter tie the cases, in grandiose terms, to classic myths, obscure historical facts, and literary and historical figures. All are giddily over the top. Combined with the book's occasional typos and factual errors, the enthusiastic result is rather endearing.

I had a great time with my first pick for the Zombie Summer Reading Program - next week, the two memoirs of that irrepressible streaker, Liz Renay!


Brady said...

It'd be really impressive if there were Gorey illustrations, seeing as how he's been dead for a few years now.

mary_m said...

Zombie Edward Gorey!

Actually, I found a copy of War of the Worlds today with illustrations by Edward Gorey - it's pretty awesome-looking.

George said...

Dorothy Dunbar was my father's first wife. I'm told one of the stories in Blood in the Parlor references him.