Schmidt recasts one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time into an intimate story of a volatile household and a family devoid of love.
“Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.”
Schmidt weaves a unique retelling of a case that has intrigued true crime ghouls like me for over a century. The book takes place over the days surrounding the real-life double murder of Andrew and Abby Borden on a sweltering day in August 1892. The chapters alternate between four first-person narrators (i.e. suspects): Lizzie, her sister Emma, the maid Bridget and the stranger Benjamin, a violent piece of work who lurks around the edges of the story.
The author’s subtle use of dialog, vocabulary and punctuation create distinct voices and rich personalities. For example, Lizzie’s tic of repeating certain words — “ticked ticked,” “sip sip”—hints at her childishness and instability. Benjamin’s off-hand, almost gleeful descriptions of hurting people induces near-panic in the reader, so much that your stomach dips when you see his name on a chapter.
Even better is Schmidt’s ability to bring the claustrophobic Borden house into perfect focus. It’s stuffy and tense, the wood creaking in the humidity. You can smell the reheated, rotting mutton the family had eaten for a full week leading up to the murder, feel its grease on your upper lip. This is a grim read, but done so very well!
See What I Have Done is detective novel meets gothic fiction, perfect for fans of true crime, history and dark drama. Each character is emotional yet sympathetic, to a degree, and this ambiguity fuels much of the tension that simmers to the very end. Whether or not you know the case makes no difference: you’ve been dropped in the middle of an unfolding tragedy that you cannot prevent or escape.