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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Miss Lizzie

Walter Satterthwait

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To purchase Miss Lizzie

Title: Miss Lizzie
Author: Walter Satterthwait
Genre: Novel
Written: 1989
Length: 342 pages
Availability: Miss Lizzie - US
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Our Assessment:

B : fine but unexceptional

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 1/8/1989 .
Sunday Times . 10/6/1990 John Coleman

  From the Reviews:
  • "(C)ompetently written (.....) Though Satterthwait is sometimes clumsy in his effort to evoke the atmosphere of the 1920s and its flapper culture, he delivers an entertaining amalgam of memoir-cum-murder mystery that rehabilitates (however improbably) the reputation of a woman who has become an enduring legend." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Beautifully described by an adult Amanda looking back, the rumour-buzzing, small-minded community comes pungently to life, and another death." - John Coleman, Sunday Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Miss Lizzie of the title is none other than Lizzie Borden, famously tried for and then acquitted of killing her father and stepmother with an axe. The novel is narrated by Amanda Burton, looking back to a "long-ago summer", when she was just thirteen. The year she looks back on is 1921 -- almost three decades after the 1892 Borden murders -- when she spent the summer on the Massachusetts sea shore with her older brother William and stepmother Audrey, her father working in Boston during the week and joining them on the weekends.
       The nearest house to theirs has been rented by the notorious Lizzie Borden, and Amanda befriends her, bonding over the card tricks Miss Lizzie shows and teaches her. It is also Miss Lizzie that Amanda runs to when she wakes up after a nap on a hot August day and finds her step-mother lying dead in the bed in the guest-room, her face brutally hacked up -- it was: "quite literally falling apart" --, apparently with a hatchet.
       Several characters immediately fall under suspicion. For one, Audrey had argued with William that morning, and William is suddenly nowhere to be found. And then there's Miss Lizzie, who has that hatchet history .... and the local chief of police Da Silva, who takes charge of this case, is all too familiar with her, having been a patrolman who took part in the Borden-murders investigation (and remaining convinced, to this day, of her guilt). And it's hard to overlook the fact that Amanda was the only other person who was in the house at the time of the crime -- and claims to have slept right through it, not hearing a thing.
       A competent lawyer, Darryl Slocum is called in by Miss Lizzie (and Amanda is immediately very taken by him), and a Pinkerton man is hired to look into things (and keep an eye out for Amanda's safety), and soon there's an overlap of investigations, with even Amanda getting involved where she can, listening in when possible witnesses provide information and tagging along when she can. A would-be spiritualist is also in the mix -- and suggests: "The key is the key", as the front door key is mysteriously missing; it might explain how the murderer got in (but then the question is: how did they get the key ?).
       William complicates matters when, after he is finally found, he confesses -- albeit so unconvincingly that even Da Silva doesn't believe he did it; he does, however, obligingly lock William up for the duration. Unsurprisingly, William is (misguidedly) trying to protect someone, as more and more information comes out about various characters, suggesting both motives and opportunities. It all unfolds neatly enough, though it's also all quite conventional; Miss Lizzie is used amusingly enough (dryly commenting: "I have had some small experience with the police before" when explaining to the police why she summoned a lawyer for Amanda before calling them, for example) but Satterthwait presents her all prim and proper (with only a slight edge, like her cigar-smoking). The opportunity to go really dark here -- by involving Amanda and/or Lizzie in committing the horrific murder -- is one he gives a very wide berth.
       There is a suspenseful finale-scene (before a tidying-up Epilogue-chapter), revealing the murderer, but the most appealing aspect of the novel is in its period-picture, not least with the beginnings of Prohibition, and how it is not taken very seriously here. Lizzie Borden's notoriety also proves useful, and adds some color to the story, as do the variety of characters - -fairly simply sketched, but a good mix that's quite well utilized. Satterthwait does Amanda's voice well, and presents her quite convincingly as being on the cusp of adulthood yet still so ignorant of so much (such as details about sex), reflecting also the times -- with enough of the mature narrator's reflection slipped in to avoid having to rely entirely on the just-teen's voice, all of which works quite well.
       Miss Lizzie is a perfectly fine little mystery and enjoyable enough easy reading, but also quite unexceptional; all in all, it feels like Satterthwait is simply playing it much too safe here.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 November 2022

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Miss Lizzie: Reviews: Walter Satterthwait: Other books by Walter Satterthwait under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Walter Satterthwait lived 1946 to 2020.

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