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Book Review

Filling in the blanks of Lizzie Borden and her mysteries

Lizzie Borden (in an undated photo) is the subject of Sarah Schmidt’s novel “See What I Have Done.”AP

In the 125 years since Lizzie Borden was tried and acquitted of murdering her father, Andrew, and stepmother, Abby, with a hatchet, her story has been retold in countless true-crime books, novels, short stories, television series, movies, even an opera and a musical. There’s an enduring fascination to the case in which, as Victoria Lincoln put it in her 1967 work “A Private Disgrace,’’ “the factual evidence of her sole opportunity and her guilt is so overwhelming, yet the bare idea of her guilt is so humanly incredible.” Lincoln’s solution to the crime — involving temporal lobe epilepsy — has since been discounted, but her book is unrivaled among the many nonfiction accounts for its knowing portrait of how Borden’s tangled personality was shaped by the tightly-knit Victorian society of her hometown, Fall River; the author grew up there while Lizzie was still alive.

Australian librarian Sarah Schmidt, whose first novel plumbs Lizzie’s mysteries, comes at the case from much farther away, both geographically and temporally. First-person accounts by Lizzie, her sister, Emma, the Borden’s maid, Bridget, and a wayfaring stranger named Benjamin voice scenarios of family dysfunction probably as common in the late 19th century as they are today, but certainly not discussed as openly. That’s a defensible artistic strategy — Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres’’ brilliantly imposes a contemporary perspective on “King Lear’’ — but Schmidt has some trouble with consistency. Did Andrew and Abby routinely slap poor little Lizzie? Or did they spoil and indulge big bad Lizzie “to keep [her] well-behaved”? In this version they do both. One of Abby’s slaps is followed by Lizzie kissing her on the mouth and drawing blood, a lurid touch about as credible as Lizzie finding prim Emma having sex with her betrothed and blackmailing her into breaking the engagement.

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Plausibility will not likely concern readers unfamiliar with details of the case (or the mores of Victorian New England) and even those who are can appreciate the atmosphere of brooding dread and lurking neurosis that Schmidt creates. Her tightly focused narrative begins on Aug. 4, 1892, with Lizzie calling out, “Someone’s killed Father,” and looks back only as far as the previous day to suggest motives for three possible perpetrators. The characters’ memories and grievances conjure up decades but restricting the physical action to two days (with a single late-chapter exception) conveys a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment appropriate to her tale of seething jealousies and familial love and hate inextricably intertwined.

Schmidt is particularly good with sinister sounds. When Bridget sees Mr. Borden slap Lizzie, she hears a “noise of skin, a cleaver working meat.” Later, as he kills Lizzie’s beloved pigeons (with an ax): “Chock, a grunting. Chock, chock. A man’s voice: ‘Stay still.’ ” “That awful chockin’,” as Bridget describes it, will lead to the final identification of the killer, though the two red herrings Schmidt dangles early on never really distract from her heavy hinting about the real culprit. Whodunit is not really the point here, and the trouble with this well-crafted but surprisingly unengaging novel is that it’s not clear what alternative point Schmidt might have in mind.

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The most compelling relationship she depicts is between Lizzie and Emma, each convinced that their father and stepmother favor the other, each believing that her sister wants to lord it over her. Bridget and Benjamin largely serve to witness scenes the author could not believably allow either sister to narrate, and Benjamin (fictionalized from reports of an anonymous man at the Borden’s front door on Aug. 4) is also enlisted to perform some far-fetched errands that tie up loose plot threads. Abby and Andrew remain ciphers. Schmidt’s Lizzie, a quivering mass of flagrant mental health issues with a serious sugar addiction, is far less interesting than the furiously repressed, thunderously unimaginative Victorian lady captured in “A Private Disgrace.’’

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The Borden murders are among a number of crimes — the brutal slaying of Jeffrey MacDonald’s daughters and pregnant wife is another — whose particulars are so logistically complicated and psychologically suggestive that any fictional version tends to pale in comparison, except when it’s utterly bizarre. (Lizzie taking off all her clothes before she takes up her weapon in a 1975 made-for-TV movie springs to mind.) “See What I Have Done’’ can be read with some enjoyment but is neither weird enough nor profound enough to rival the fascinations of the real-life story.

SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE

By Sarah Schmidt

Atlantic Monthly, 328 pp., $26


Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post.