Starvation Heights–Gregg Olsen

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This is a true crime book but it’s not gory, so if you’re interested in true crime but are squeamish, this might be the ideal choice for you.

The case is actually a fairly famous one in true crime circles. It’s a historical case, turn of the last century, and it involves a quack of a doctor starving her patients to death.

But only the rich ones with minimal relatives. Let’s not get crazy about this. If you were poor or had relatives checking on you a lot, you were fairly likely to walk away without problem from the facility.

Basically, it went like this: a woman named Linda Hazzard, who attended no medical school of any type managed to get herself licensed by some grandfather clause for people who were practicing before 1909? But the upshot is she was a completely untrained person practicing as a doctor.

Her idea was that fasting would cure EVERYTHING. You have arthritis? Fasting. Cancer? Fasting. Migraines? FASTING. Oh and enemas. Super intense enemas.

Claire and Dora Williamson were rich sisters that were mostly alone in the world. They had extended family but no one really close to them. They had a lot of money and property and were always interested in alternative treatments. They didn’t really have a lot of issues, but Claire did have some digestive or uterine issues, but nothing serious, nothing that kept them from travel, which, again, travel in the freaking early 1900s was not easy or super comfortable, even for the rich.

They started by renting an apartment in Seattle, where they started the fast. All they had was vegetable broth and water, plus the enemas and “vigorous massages” every day. They got so thin, so fast that the neighbors were alarmed. By the time the facility in the woods was ready for them, they couldn’t walk alone because of the weakness and had to be carried down to the ferry.

When they got to the facility, they were put in the attic, separated by a curtain so they couldn’t see and barely speak to each other. Claire managed to get a note out to their childhood nurse in Australia before she died of starvation. By the time the nurse came, Claire was dead and Dora weighed less than 60 pounds. Somehow, Hazzard had managed to get herself appointed the guardian of Dora and it took quite some time for Dora to be extracted, and she made a full recovery.

Prosecution was a problem. The place where Claire died was in the woods, in a small county, not the bigger Seattle one. The county didn’t have a lot of money and didn’t want to prosecute. But Claire and Dora were actually British citizens and local British authority pushed and got them to prosecute her.

She was sentenced to a short prison sentence and reopened her business. It’s crazy.

This is a great good, well researched, beautifully written, very educational.

 

The Pale Horse–Agatha Christie

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This is a fun book.

The narrator, Mark Easterbrook, stumbles upon the existence of murderers for hire in 1960s London. When he finds an actual place with practicing witches in a house with the same name as the murderous society, he becomes suspicious.

Later, a conversation with a police medical examiner friend reveals the existence of a list of people taken down by a priest from a dying woman. The priest was killed moments after making the list.

The list turns out to be a list of people who recently died, of apparently natural circumstances, from an assortment of illnesses. In the local inn by the witch’s abode, the nephew of one of the dead people had been for a visit, about a month before she got sick.

Clearly, something is afoot.

He engages with the witches, claiming to be a man in need of freedom from a wife who won’t divorce him. But when his friend Ginger–playing the wife–starts getting seriously ill for no apparent reason, he starts to panic.

How do the witches do it? There is no physical contact between them and the victim and the only people Ginger saw were normal visitors–meter readers, handymen, and so on.

The answer is found in the work of consumer research firms and one consistent symptom, the loss of hair.

This is a clever little book, as indeed are most of Agatha Christie’s works. Unlike many others, there is no ongoing sleuth (there’s no Poirot or Miss Marple in this. Ariadne Oliver is in this one, but it’s not going to harm you to read this without reading other Oliver-involved mysteries.) so you can read it as a stand alone.

 

Rebecca–Daphne de Maurier

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This is one of those classics that I should have read sooner but didn’t. Such is life.

It’s a beautiful, elegant book. I’m going to watch the movie at some point as well.

Basically, it follows the path of a young girl as she meets a rich widower and marries him. All seems well until they go back to his home, Manderley. Manderley is an elegant, old estate, and the new bride (who never gets a name) feels ill-equipped to handle it. Added to her issues is the fact that her housekeeper, an imposing woman named Mrs. Danvers, is still devoted to the first wife, Rebecca.

She soon discovers that the shadow of Rebecca is hanging over everything she ever does. Her bedroom is newly renovated because the rooms used by Rebecca and her husband are shut off, kept exactly as they were when Rebecca died.

All the friends and neighbors she meet talk about how wonderful and vivacious Rebecca was, how beautiful she was and how memorable her parties. On a walk with her husband, the dog wanders to a hidden cove with a small cottage, but her husband won’t go there and bans her from going back there.

She tries her hardest to be as good as Rebecca, as lovely and as popular, but in that she is thwarted by Mrs. Danvers who does her best to make her feel inferior and sabotages her efforts at every turn.

As the situation progresses, it starts to seem like not only was Rebecca not the saint she appeared to be, but that there is some deep dark secret that is associated with her death. Her husband, who has been withdrawn and uncommunicative since they got back home after their honeymoon, eventually tells the truth to his new wife and from there everything goes to hell.

It’s a tragic, sad story, but it is beautifully written and conveys an almost gothic atmosphere that you hardly ever see done (or at least, hardly ever seen done well) lately. It’s not a long book, and it’s a classic, and I definitely recommend it.

Side note: if you read the Jasper Fforde “Eyre Affair” series you’ll find that Mrs. Danvers is a recurring character that causes havoc for the main character. That was my first introduction to Mrs. Danvers and the entire conceit is far more amusing having actually read Rebecca.

 

 

Thirteen at Dinner–Agatha Christie

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They made a movie of this one, but I haven’t seen it.

Lady Edgware is a famous actress, and she’s been separated from Lord Edgware for quite some time. He’s been refusing to give her a divorce, which she needs because she wants to remarry, to a Duke this time.

So Lady Edgware asks Poirot to intercede with her husband. When he goes, Lord Edgware tells him that, on the contrary, he agreed to a divorce some time ago.

Lady Edgware seems surprised and relieved. All should be well.

And then Lord Edgware is killed. The butler and the secretary identify Lady Edgware as the only person to see him that night.

Why would she kill him when she already got her divorce?

But wait, there’s more.

She was at a dinner in the country at the time she was supposedly killing her husband. Several prominent people can testify to that.

So who killed her husband? And why?

Poirot leads the police down a path that leads to the eventual arrest of Lord Edgware’s nephew, who inherited the title and more importantly, the money he most definitely needed.

Immediately after the arrest, he announces that it couldn’t possibly be the nephew and starts working to free him. Fun times.

This is a fun little book.

Today’s Agatha Christie trivia question: What’s the alternate title of this book?

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?–Agatha Christie

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This is, inexplicably, one of my favorite of her books. I have no idea why.

You have this semi-irresponsible young man, a veteran with no job prospects, living with his father, the local vicar.

He’s playing golf with a friend and there’s a weird chasm thing in the middle of the golf course and they find a man that’s fallen into the chasm.

**side note** this reminds me of some Disney movies that shall go unnamed where there’s a convenient bottomless pit nearby for the villain to fall into. I don’t believe any place just has a random chasm stuck in a golf course. Moving on.

The man seems unconscious, the friend goes for help and then the man opens his eyes and says, “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” and dies.

The only identification on the man is a picture in his pocket of a very beautiful woman whom Bobby–our intrepid wastrel–immediately develops a crush on.

Then Bobby is offered a job out of the country, which he refuses. And then he’s poisoned. And so he and his friend, the rich and titled Lady Frances, go investigate. They meet the lovely original of the photograph and her sinister husband. Among a host of other suspects, of course.

Who is Evans? What were they supposed to ask? The answer is strangely irrelevant and comes late.

Trivia time! I’ll go easy on you. What was the alternate title for “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?”

The answer from last time, regarding the green fabric on the door, is that it came from the green armband on the dead woman’s daughter-in-law’s work uniform.