Author: Sarah Schmidt
Finished on: 7 July 2018
Where did I get this book: A Mr B’s subscription read
The dysfunctional family is a staple trope of the crime novel. From Agatha Christie to Donna Tartt, writers have mined the rich seam of motivations they provide for the most terrible of crimes. And in See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt delves deeper and darker than most. With the added intensity that comes from knowing these people are real.
The 1892 murders of Andrew and Abby Borden in Fall River, Massachusetts rocked the world. Partially because of the brutality of the killings: they were both hacked up with an axe, and partially because the only major suspect at the time was Andrew’s Sunday school teaching daughter, the 32 year-old Lizzie Borden. Lizzie was tried and acquitted, but to this day is considered to be the most likely perpetrator of the crimes.
Schmidt does not deviate significantly from the widely accepted version of events on 4th of August 1892, but stops short of giving a definitive answer to the century-old question of who killed Andrew and Abby. But if you’re concerned this means the story might lack tension, then you really don’t need to worry. Quite the reverse. This is the most vividly drawn unhappy family since Tolstoy thought he might fancy writing about a love triangle in 1873.
The vast majority of See What I Have Done focuses on just a couple of days in the life of the Borden family. We get right under their skin; see the vomit and the vitriol they bring out in each other. Everything here is poisoned or rotten. This is a toxic household in more ways than one.
The relationship between Lizzie and her sister Emma, who is ten years older, is particularly malignant. Emma is desperate to escape a life where she is horribly manipulated and overshadowed by her younger sibling, and she almost succeeds a couple of times, which makes it all the more excruciating as we watch her sucked back in. Imagine It’s A Wonderful Life, but where the ending is very very far from wonderful and involves more bloody corpses.
The story of how Schmidt came to write this book: a chance encounter with a pamphlet about Lizzie which led to dream visitations from the likely murderess, is included at the end of the book, and is almost as compelling as the novel itself. This is one of those perfect pairings of riveting subject matter, and exactly the right person for the job of conveying it.
Schmidt’s writing strains out of every page of the book. It is almost unbearably close, claustrophobic and tense. As well as being a masterclass in building suspense in a narrative where we basically know what happens, See What I Have Done is one of the ultimate dysfunctional family crime stories.