Monday, October 14, 2013

A Review of Thomas H. Cook's "Sandrine's Case"

Seldom has a book moved me to tears, but Sandrine's Case did because of the beauty of its prose and its exquisite ending. Do NOT read the ending first!

Professor Sam Madison is on trial for the murder of his wife, Sandrine, who was found dead, naked, in their bed in a posed position. But did he murder his 46-year-old wife, who was also a professor at Coburn College in their small Southern town, or did she commit suicide?

While this book might be called a mystery, it is
actually more of a character study of Sam Madison. It is also the story of a marriage, an institution best understood by the participants and largely judged or misjudged by those on the ouside observing the marriage. This is especially true in the small town of Coburn. At one point his daughter, Alexandria, tries to define marriage. She says, "Maybe that's why married people try so hard to make things work. It's not that they love each other every day, right? It's that they love each other enough to stay through the days they don't." The Madison's marriage and their history are tightly wound around the outcome of Sam's trial.

Through Sam's thoughts and seamlessly perfect prose journeys back and forth in time, we learn the story of Sam and Sandrine's marriage and their history together. Hardly dead in the true sense of that word,
Sandrine is a living presence in Sam's mind and in the story. She was lovely, vivacious, brilliant, utterly dedicated to her students, and kind.  So what had attracted her to Sam Madison, who is so cold that she calls him a sociopath shortly before her death? What are we to think when he begins to suspect that his dead wife has actually put into motion a plan that will frame him and lead to his own execution and his loss of their daughter's love?

Each chapter of the novel is another day in the short murder trial of Sam Madison, a trial seen through his eyes. Despite Cook's flawless prose, Madison is hardly a narrator we can like. Cold and cynical, he has always thought of himself as far superior to other Coburn inhabitants. As each neighbor, lover, or co-worker testifies, we actually hear his/her testimony from Sam's point of view. Sam's dark thoughts seem to lend credence to the theory of the police detective sworn to pin the murder on him. Cook creates suspense as only he can, and the reader is turning pages quickly to find out whether Sam will be found guilty.

As the trial plays out, the reader goes back and forth.
Did he do it? Did she do it? Who is guilty and who is innocent? How do their past and their marriage play such a significant role in the final outcome of the trial? In the end this beautiful novel is a story of redemption. I loved Thomas H. Cook's The Chatham School Affair, but his lyrical prose, his flawless movement back and forth in time, his utterly surprising ending, and his masterful use of suspense put Sandrine's Case at the top of my list.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Upstairs at the McCullough House

After my sojourn across the pond, it's back to the
McCullough House, a Victorian home that will be an 1893 setting in my second mystery. We've explored the public rooms downstairs. Now it's time to take the broad staircase to the second and third floors.

The wealthy of the late 1800s generally had sparsely furnished bedrooms. These were private areas of the house so ostentation wasn't necessary. Usually the bedrooms on the second floor contained an easy chair, table, washstand with pitcher, bureau, and chamber pots.

The beds were made of brass, iron, or woods such as
mahogany, oak, cherry, or ash.  I imagine the McCulloughs had high-posted beds because the ceilings were high and the floors cold. They probably had feather beds since the wealthy could afford such luxury. The walls in the rooms were painted or wallpapered in a hardly memorable pattern. They may have had three or four bedrooms on the second floor, but the master bedroom was in the front with windows looking out over the street. At some point the owners also added a bathroom in the 1800's sense of the word.

A bathroom was separate from a water closet. Let's consider first the lowly water closet. Through most of the 1800s, the privy was outdoors and was called an outhouse, a house of office, or a necessary house. In fact, there was much resistance to bringing this whole unsanitary business inside the house. Not until WWI did "bathrooms" become tubs, sinks, and toilets. In 1910, Sears, Roebuck sold the three together as a "suite" with standard parts put out by, appropriately, the American Standard company. So perhaps the McCullough house began with an outside privy that was later moved into a small closet on the second floor.

Also on the second floor was the bathroom. This was strictly for bathing and when we lived there in the late 1960s, the second floor did have a large bathroom that accommodated a claw-foot tub. But in the late 1800s, this tub was made of wood, zinc, or painted tin. Often a bathroom had a fireplace and might have started as a small bedchamber. The Victorians avoided wallpaper or wood paneling in their bathrooms because of roaches. Instead, they used glazed ceramic tile in white, gray, or buff colors. The more expensive--I'd like to think the McCulloughs fit this category--used pearl, gold, or rose hues in their tiles. Can you imagine, as a domestic, making multiple trips carrying water up the back stairway from the kitchen to fill this tub and keep it warm so the owners could bathe? You would probably have been thankful people didn't bathe as often in the 1800s.

Probably a bit larger than the McCullough House,
 but you get the picture!
The second floor is not as interesting as the top floor of the house--the ballroom. It's possible the third floor also had a couple of small, lackluster rooms for servants' quarters too. But the top floor was a ballroom with windows overlooking the main street, Broadway. Refreshments would have been available in the ballroom and possibly they had a midnight supper on the first floor followed the dancing.

All young ladies were given a dance program and
gentlemen wrote their names in for specific dances. Never would an unmarried woman dance more than twice with the same man. Until the late 1880s, husbands and wives never danced together in public (disregard what you see from Hollywood.) The favored dances were the waltz, polka, quadrille, gallop, cotillion, and Virginia Reel. But young ladies were warned against overexertion in Godey's Lady's Book. This was probably prudent since they were in corsets that cut off their lung capacities. 

The finest evening wear would have been essential for the McCullough's dance invitations. 

Gloves and fans were required. The fans were made of silk, tortoise shell, lace, or ivory, and often had beads, hand-painted designs, or feathers. A lady suspended her fan on a chain from her waist while dancing. She also learned the "language of fans" so she could flirt with young men.

It would be easy to imagine the evening promenade of
men and women in fancy dress walking up the main staircase of the McCullough house to spend a pleasant evening dancing in the ballroom and drinking punch. Tightly enforced social codes required the unmarried to move through their regulated lives under the watchful eyes of the married adults. (Egads, another reason marriage was the ding dong bell of doom.) And, when the dance ended, the ladies would obtain their evening wraps, be escorted down the staircase once again, and climb into their conveyances to go home through the quiet streets of Monmouth.