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.
Read an excerpt:
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
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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.