A Treasury of Victorian Murder: The Case of Madeleine Smith
Genre: Biography, Mystery, Graphic Novel
A man, Emile L’Angleir, lying dead in a Glasgow boarding house. Cause of death: arsenic poisoning. In his possession: letters signed by a woman named Mimi. It doesn’t take long for investigators to trace them back to their source, twenty-year-old Madeleine Smith.
Starting with these facts, this book recounts the tale of a secret romance doomed to fail and a crime that captured world-wide attention at a time when most news still took weeks to travel from one place to the next. Who was Madeleine Smith? Was she a spoiled brat who, when she didn’t get her way, got rid of an unwanted suitor permanently? Or was she a naïve maiden seduced by a much older man who couldn’t handle her rejection?
This book seeks to answer some of those questions, ultimately leaving the final decision in readers’ hands.
For such a short book, The Case of Madeleine Smith certainly felt much longer. The art takes some getting used to; it’s not quite as realistic as true Victorian art would be, but it’s drawn in the same sort of crosshatch, black-and-white style. Many of the characters end up looking the same, so it can be difficult telling them apart if you’re not paying attention. The flow of boxes makes sense, though, and it should be easy to follow for any struggling reader who chooses to use this book for an assignment.
To be honest, this book would most likely be appropriate for middle-school students, despite the fact that it’s about a murder. Students in ninth or tenth grade would probably appreciate it, as well. Where the problem lies, however, is the fact that Geary routinely quotes letters by Madeleine and Emile in his narrative. These letters were written over 150 years ago, and the language can be quite different from that which is used today. Struggling readers, even those in eleventh and twelfth grade, might have difficulty understanding what the quotes actually say without assistance.
Still, Geary does a good job of making both Madeleine and Emile come to life. It would have been easy to make them caricatures—her, either a wilting flower or a sneaky, obsessive teen; him, an unlucky doofus or a conniving scoundrel—but Geary manages to take what evidence is available and paint them both in a relatively neutral light. He shows that, at least in the early days, the relationship was mutually passionate, but that a lack of approval from Madeleine’s father made their lives difficult. From there, the relationship plays out in a very “romance novel” sort of way, with Emile following her family to their country home, midnight cups of cocoa on the doorstep, and other, less innocent trysts.
This is actually where the book breaks down somewhat for me. Because it is so short, we get the very barest of detail from the author. We’re sitting here with this incredible true story of a love gone wrong, and it reads more like a piece from an encyclopedia. The story just begs for…well, not novelization, as such, being a true story, but a literary nonfiction treatment. Get an author like Erik Larsson to go after it, spice it up a bit. Make us truly care about these people so when we do see the trial, we’re not entirely sure whether we want Madeleine to be found guilty or not. Something like that would have made the book so much better.
A good true-crime graphic novel for kids who like such things, but it could’ve been written better.
- Fans of true crime
- Fans of graphic novels
- Anyone interested in the gritty side of the Victorian era
- Death: characters die
- Deceit: characters trick each other with potentially villainous intent
- Lying: characters lie to one another to stay out of trouble
- Murder: character is on trial for murder
- Religion: the religious practices of one character is discussed
- Sex: characters have sex (not explicit)
- Suicide: a character contemplates suicide
- Weapon Use: character ingests poison
- Mental Illness
- Right vs. Wrong
- Romantic Love
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|Suspension of Disbelief||2|
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