I'm pleased to welcome Marlie Parker Wasserman to Cozy Up With Kathy today. THE MURDERESS MUST DIE is Marlie's first novel. Be sure to stop back on Friday when I'll share my review.
MPW: By happenstance I learned about Martha Place and her fate in a March 1899 edition of a New York newspaper. For my work on a different project that involved Theodore Roosevelt, I needed to read countless accounts of his activities, not anticipating I would find the germ of a new project. When I came across an article that said Roosevelt, then governor of NY, refused to grant clemency to the first woman likely to die in the electric chair, for a murder committed in Brooklyn, I was hooked. OK, readers, so now you know that he didn’t spare her.
Kathy: Why did you decide to tell her story?
MPW: At first I researched the case simply because the details fascinated me. Why would Martha Place murder her teenaged stepdaughter? The more I read, the more confused I became about the killer’s motivations. I also saw that reporters were cruel to Martha Place, calling her “underbred,” saying she resembled a rat. Even if she did commit the crime, I thought, she should have been treated with more respect. Once I learned that she had seven lawyers in succession, not good for any defense strategy, I decided to turn the spotlight on her in a novel.
Kathy: Your book sits at the junction of true crime and crime fiction. Why choose this route, instead of straight nonfiction?
MPW: I love beginning with a historic event, in this case a true crime. Then I try to stay honest to the outline of the crime, but turn my attention to the gaps, the silences you might say, in the written record. For me, this provides both a structure and spaces for creativity. When a seemingly infinite number of events and characters are possible, I spend too much time floundering about in my writing, but when some facts are known and some are not, I can channel my energy into the unknown buckets. Think of it as an algebra problem, with knowns and unknowns.
Kathy: What first drew you to cozy historical crime fiction?
MPW: To be honest, this book has only a limited number of cozy features. I included no pets, no recipes, and no small town. On the other hand, we have only one violent murder, and even with that I leave much to the imagination. We have a minimum of foul language, and what I included was very intentional to help explain the motivations of characters. As for sex, I did write about two different relationships, but my descriptions are more suggestive than explicit. I would say that I have cozy-like elements, but largely because I believe for violence, language, and sex, a few details are sufficient to set the stage.
Kathy: Do you write in any other genres?
MPW: No. I am a devotee of historic crime fiction. But I read across genres, skipping only fantasy and sci fi. I believe life is strange enough without adding in extraterrestrial creatures.
Kathy: Tell us about your series.
MPW: Many authors start with a debut novel and then that becomes book one in a series. But, alas, my character dies in Sing Sing prison (that is not a spoiler because readers know that from page one) so I can’t have her making an appearance in book two. To be honest, I am a fan of stand alones. Each new book forces me to learn about additional people and settings. I do, however, set all my work in the United States, in the period between 1898 and 1906—a time of rapid technological change and social unrest.
Kathy: Do you have a favorite character? If so, who and why?
MPW: I love all my darlings. Let me single out, for lovers of cozies, Aunt Evelyn. Most of the characters in my book are historic figures, but Aunt Evelyn is a figment of my imagination. She is a wealthy and self-righteous character who tries her best to add culture and refinement to the life of her poor niece, Martha Place. Aunt Evelyn acts in good faith, even though today many readers would view her as patronizing. She serves tea from time to time, but when she loses faith in her niece, she holds back refreshments.
Kathy: Did you have a specific inspiration for your books?
MPW: I love the period in the United States from about 1890 to the start of World War I. People began to use, or to see others use, telegrams, telephones, electric lighting, and automobiles. In the same period, the electric chair came into widespread use, though that particular invention has its critics and its advocates.
Kathy: What made you decide to publish your work?
MPW: I wanted to set the record straight, as least as I imagine the record. Yes, poor Ida Place should have lived a long and fulfilling life. She did nothing to deserve murder. And Martha Place, assuming she committed the crime, deserved punishment, though we can argue with each other about whether that should have been death. But Martha deserved to be treated as a human being. Her father should have treated her with respect, her husbands should have cared for her well-being, and the reporters who covered her crime should have avoided editorializing about her appearance, background, and morals.
Kathy: If you could have a dinner party and invite 4 authors, living or dead, in any genre, who would you invite?
MPW: Eric Larsen, Louise Penny, Maggie O’Farrell, Candice Millard. All superstars.
Kathy: What are you currently reading?
MPW: Louise Erdrich, THE NIGHT WATCHMAN. Her books are superb.
Kathy: Will you share any of your hobbies or interests with us?
MPW: Oh, yes, but I will struggle to keep this short. Above all, I love travel. I am a tourist at heart. For my bucket list, I want to visit every national park before I die. The total number—counting just national parks, not national monuments and not national historic parts--is 63. I’ve visited 39 so far. I also love to sketch and paint but writing leaves me little time for that.
Kathy: Name 4 items you always have in your fridge or pantry.
MPW: Chocolate, coffee, almonds, popcorn—in that order.
Kathy: Do you have plans for future books?
MPW: I am writing a novel about the Windsor Hotel fire in Manhattan, 1899. The hotel burned to the ground, resulting in about fifty deaths. The coroner ruled the fire an accident. Hmmm.
Kathy: What's your favorite thing about being an author?
MPW: Writing is a puzzle. I love trying to fit the pieces together. As a side note, it is a portable activity that I can carry with me when I travel.
The Murderess Must Die
by Marlie Parker Wasserman
August 16 - September 10, 2021 Tour
On a winter day in 1898, hundreds of spectators gather at a Brooklyn courthouse, scrambling for a view of the woman they label a murderess. Martha Place has been charged with throwing acid in her stepdaughter’s face, hitting her with an axe, suffocating her with a pillow, then trying to kill her husband with the same axe. The crowd will not know for another year that the alleged murderess becomes the first woman in the world to be executed in the electric chair. None of her eight lawyers can save her from a guilty verdict and the governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt, refuses to grant her clemency.
Was Martha Place a wicked stepmother, an abused wife, or an insane killer? Was her stepdaughter a tragic victim? Why would a well-dressed woman, living with an upstanding husband, in a respectable neighborhood, turn violent? Since the crime made the headlines, we have heard only from those who abused and condemned Martha Place.
Speaking from the grave she tells her own story, in her own words. Her memory of the crime is incomplete, but one of her lawyers fills in the gaps. At the juncture of true crime and fiction, The Murderess Must Die is based on an actual crime. What was reported, though, was only half the story.
Praise for The Murderess Must Die:
A true crime story. But in this case, the crime resides in the punishment. Martha Place was the first woman to die in the electric chair: Sing Sing, March 20, 1899. In this gorgeously written narrative, told in the first-person by Martha and by those who played a part in her life, Marlie Parker Wasserman shows us the (appalling) facts of fin-de-siècle justice. More, she lets us into the mind of Martha Place, and finally, into the heart. Beautifully observed period detail and astute psychological acuity combine to tell us Martha's story, at once dark and illuminating. The Murderess Must Die accomplishes that rare feat: it entertains, even as it haunts.
Howard A. Rodman, author of The Great Eastern
The first woman to be executed by electric chair in 1899, Martha Place, speaks to us in Wasserman's poignant debut novel. The narrative travels the course of Place's life describing her desperation in a time when there were few opportunities for women to make a living. Tracing events before and after the murder of her step-daughter Ida, in lean, straightforward prose, it delivers a compelling feminist message: could an entirely male justice system possibly realize the frightful trauma of this woman's life? This true-crime novel does more--it transcends the painful retelling of Place's life to expand our conception of the death penalty. Although convicted of a heinous crime, Place's personal tragedies and pitiful end are inextricably intertwined.
Nev March, author of Edgar-nominated Murder in Old Bombay
The Murderess Must Die would be a fascinating read even without its central elements of crime and punishment. Marlie Parker Wasserman gets inside the heads of a wide cast of late nineteenth century Americans and lets them tell their stories in their own words. It’s another world, both alien and similar to ours. You can almost hear the bells of the streetcars.
Edward Zuckerman, author of Small Fortunes and The Day After World War Three, Emmy-winning writer-producer of Law & Order
This is by far the best book I have read in 2021! Based on a true story, I had never heard of Mattie Place prior to reading this book. I loved all of the varying voices telling in the exact same story. It was unique and fresh and so wonderfully deep. I had a very hard time putting the book down until I was finished!
It isn't often that an author makes me feel for the murderess but I did. I connected deeply with all of the people in this book, and I do believe it will stay with me for a very long time.
This is a fictionalized version of the murder of Ida Place but it read as if the author Marlie Parker Wasserman was a bystander to the actual events. I very highly recommend this book.
Genre: Historical Crime Fiction
Published by: Level Best Books
Publication Date: July 6, 2021
Number of Pages: 250
Purchase Links: Amazon | Goodreads
Read an excerpt:
Martha Garretson, that’s the name I was born with, but the district attorney called me Martha Place in the murder charge. I was foolish enough to marry Mr. William Place. And before that I was dumb enough to marry another man, Wesley Savacool. So, my name is Martha Garretson Savacool Place. Friends call me Mattie. No, I guess that’s not right. I don’t have many friends, but my family, the ones I have left, they call me Mattie. I’ll tell you more before we go on. The charge was not just murder. That D.A. charged me with murder in the first degree, and he threw in assault, and a third crime, a ridiculous one, attempted suicide. In the end he decided to aim at just murder in the first. That was enough for him.
I had no plans to tell you my story. I wasn’t one of those story tellers. That changed in February 1898, soon after my alleged crimes, when I met Miss Emilie Meury. The guards called her the prison angel. She’s a missionary from the Brooklyn Auxiliary Mission Society. Spends her days at the jail where the police locked me up for five months before Sing Sing. I never thought I’d talk to a missionary lady. I didn’t take kindly to religion. But Miss Meury, she turned into a good friend and a good listener. She never snickered at me. Just nodded or asked a question or two, not like those doctors I talked to later. They asked a hundred questions. No, Miss Meury just let me go wherever I wanted, with my recollections. Because of Miss Meury, now I know how to tell my story. I talked to her for thirteen months, until the day the state of New York set to electrocute me.
We talked about the farm, that damn farm. Don’t fret, I knew enough not to say damn to Emilie Meury. She never saw a farm. She didn’t know much about New Jersey, and nothing about my village, East Millstone. I told her how Pa ruined the farm. Sixty acres, only thirty in crop, one ramshackle house with two rooms down and two rooms up. And a smokehouse, a springhouse, a root cellar, a chicken coop, and a corn crib, all run down, falling down. The barn was the best of the lot, but it leaned over to the west.
They tell me I had three baby brothers who died before I was born, two on the same day. Ma and Pa hardly talked about that, but the neighbors remembered, and they talked. For years that left just my brother Garret, well, that left Garret for a while anyway, and my sister Ellen. Then I was born, then Matilda—family called her Tillie—then Peter, then Eliza, then Garret died in the
war, then Eliza died. By the time I moved to Brooklyn, only my brother Peter and my sister Ellen were alive. Peter is the only one the police talk to these days.
The farmers nearby and some of our kin reckoned that my Ma and Pa, Isaac and Penelope Garretson were their names, they bore the blame for my three little brothers dying in just two years. Isaac and Penelope were so mean, that’s what they deserved. I don’t reckon their meanness caused the little ones to die. I was a middle child with five before me and three after, and I saw meanness all around, every day. I never blamed anything on meanness. Not even what happened to me.
On the farm there was always work to be done, a lot of it by me. Maybe Ma and Pa spread out the work even, but I never thought so. By the time I was nine, that was in 1858, I knew what I had to do. In the spring I hiked up my skirt to plow. In the fall I sharpened the knives for butchering. In the winter I chopped firewood after Pa or Garret, he was the oldest, sawed the heaviest logs. Every morning I milked and hauled water from the well. On Thursdays I churned. On Mondays I scrubbed. Pa, and Ma too, they were busy with work, but they always had time to yell when I messed up. I was two years younger than Ellen, she’s my sister, still alive, I think. I was taller and stronger. Ellen had a bent for sewing and darning, so lots of time she sat in the parlor with handiwork. I didn’t think the parlor looked shabby. Now that I’ve seen fancy houses, I remember the scratched and frayed chairs in the farmhouse and the rough plank floor, no carpets. While Ellen sewed in the parlor, I plowed the fields, sweating behind the horses. I sewed too, but everyone knew Ellen was better. I took care with all my chores. Had to sew a straight seam. Had to plow a straight line. If I messed up, Pa’s wrath came down on me, or sometimes Ma’s. Fists or worse.
When I told that story for the first time to Miss Emilie Meury, she lowered her head, looked at the Bible she always held. And when I told it to others, they looked away too.
On the farm Ma needed me and Ellen to watch over our sisters, Tillie and Eliza, and over our brother Peter. They were born after me. Just another chore, that’s what Ellen thought about watching the young ones. For me, I liked watching them, and not just because I needed a rest from farm work. I loved Peter. He was four years younger. He’s not that sharp but he’s a good-natured, kind. I loved the girls too. Tillie, the level-headed and sweet one, and Eliza, the restless one, maybe wild even. The four of us played house. I was the ma and Peter, he stretched his
back and neck to be pa. I laughed at him, in a kindly way. He and me, we ordered Tillie and Eliza around. We played school and I pranced around as schoolmarm.
But Ma and Pa judged, they judged every move. They left the younger ones alone and paid no heed to Ellen. She looked so sour. We called her sourpuss. Garret and me, we made enough mistakes to keep Ma and Pa busy all year. I remember what I said once to Ma, when she saw the messy kitchen and started in on me.
“Why don’t you whup Ellen? She didn’t wash up either.”
“Don’t need to give a reason.”
“Why don’t you whup Garret. He made the mess.”
“You heard me. Don’t need to give a reason.”
Then she threw a dish. Hit my head. I had a bump, and more to clean.
With Pa the hurt lasted longer. Here’s what I remember. “Over there.” That’s what he said, pointing. He saw the uneven lines my plow made. When I told this story to Miss Meury, I pointed, with a mean finger, to give her the idea.
I spent that night locked in the smelly chicken coop.
When I tell about the coop, I usually tell about the cemetery next, because that’s a different kind of hurt. Every December, from the time I was little to the time I left the farm, us Garretsons took the wagon or the sleigh for our yearly visit to the cemetery, first to visit Stephen, Cornelius, and Abraham. They died long before. They were ghosts to me. I remembered the gloom of the cemetery, and the silence. The whole family stood around those graves, but I never heard a cry. Even Ma stayed quiet. I told the story, just like this, to Miss Meury. But I told it again, later, to those men who came to the prison to check my sanity.
Penelope Wykoff Garretson
I was born a Wyckoff, Penelope Wyckoff, and I felt that in my bones, even when the other farm folks called me Ma Garretson. As a Wyckoff, one of the prettiest of the Wyckoffs I’m not shy to say, I lived better than lots of the villagers in central New Jersey, certainly better than the Garretsons. I had five years of schooling and new dresses for the dances each year. I can’t remember what I saw in Isaac Garretson when we married on February 5, 1841. We slept together that night. I birthed Stephen nine months later. Then comes the sing-song litany. When I was still nursing Stephen, Garret was born. And while I was still nursing Garret, the twins were born. Then the twins died and I had only Stephen and Garret. Then Stephen died and I had no one but Garret until Ellen was born. Then Martha. Some call her Mattie. Then Peter. Then Matilda. Some call her Tillie. Then Eliza. Then Garret died. Then Eliza died. Were there more births than deaths or deaths than births?
During the worst of the birthing and the burying, Isaac got real bad. He always had a temper, I knew that, but it got worse. Maybe because the farm was failing, or almost failing. The banks in New Brunswick—that was the nearby town—wouldn’t lend him money. Those bankers knew him, knew he was a risk. Then the gambling started. Horse racing. It’s a miracle he didn’t lose the farm at the track. I didn’t tell anyone, not even my sisters, about the gambling, and I certainly didn’t tell them that the bed didn’t help any. No time for shagging. Isaac pulled me to him at the end of a day. The bed was always cold because he never cut enough firewood. I rolled away most days, not all. Knew it couldn’t be all. So tired. There were no strapping boys to
help with the farm, no girls either for a while.
As Garret grew tall and Ellen and Mattie grew some, I sent the children to the schoolhouse. It wasn’t much of a school, just a one-room unpainted cottage shared with the post office, with that awful Mr. Washburn in charge. It was what we had. Isaac thought school was no use and kept Garret and the girls back as much as he could, especially in the spring. He needed them for the farm and the truth was I could use them for housework and milking and such too. Garret didn’t mind skipping school. He was fine with farm work, but Ellen and Mattie fussed and attended more days than Garret did. I worried that Garret struggled to read and write, while the girls managed pretty well. Ellen and Mattie read when there was a need and Mattie was good with her numbers. At age nine she was already helping Isaac with his messy ledgers.
I was no fool—I knew what went on in that school. The few times I went to pull out Garret midday for plowing, that teacher, that Mr. Washburn, looked uneasy when I entered the room. He stood straight as a ramrod, looking at me, grimacing. His fingernails were clean and his collar was starched. I reckon he saw that my fingernails were filthy and my muslin dress was soiled. Washburn didn’t remember that my children, the Garretson children, were Wyckoffs just as much as they were Garretsons. He saw their threadbare clothes and treated them like dirt. Had Garret chop wood and the girls haul water, while those stuck-up Neilson girls, always with those silly smiles on their faces, sat around in their pretty dresses, snickering at the others. First, I didn’t think the snickering bothered anyone except me. Then I saw Ellen and Mattie fussing with their clothes before school, pulling the fabric around their frayed elbows to the inside, and I knew they felt bad.
I wanted to raise my children, at least my daughters, like Wyckoffs. With Isaac thinking he was in charge, that wasn’t going to happen. At least the girls knew the difference, knew there was something better than this miserable farm. But me, Ma Garretson they called me, I was stuck.
Excerpt from The Murderess Must Die by Marlie Wasserman. Copyright 2021 by Marlie Wasserman. Reproduced with permission from Marlie Wasserman. All rights reserved.
Marlie Parker Wasserman writes historical crime fiction, after a career on the other side of the desk in publishing. The Murderess Must Die is her debut novel. She reviews regularly for The Historical Novel Review and is at work on a new novel about a mysterious and deadly 1899 fire in a luxury hotel in Manhattan.
Catch Up With Marlie Wasserman:
Instagram - @marliepwasserman
Twitter - @MarlieWasserman
Facebook - @marlie.wasserman
Visit these other great hosts on this tour for more great reviews, interviews, guest posts, and giveaways!
Join In To Win!
This is a rafflecopter giveaway hosted by Partners in Crime Virtual Book Tours for Marlie Parker Wasserman. There will be 1 winner of one (1) Amazon.com Gift Card (U.S. ONLY). The giveaway runs from August 16th until September 12, 2021. Void where prohibited.
Great interview! This sounds like a very interesting book!ReplyDelete
This book looks and sounds like a great read. would love read and review in print format. Love excerpt and book cover.ReplyDelete
Always good to find a new author and learn more about them and their books.
Hope I Win