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Rick Geary is a terrifically talented artist with a strong interest in the Victorian era (and a great line of original art rubber stamps). THE CASE OF MADELEINE SMITH is the latest in his series depicting famous and/or baffling murder mysteries of the mid-19th century. I don't share his fascination with Victorian murders but the meticulous and detailed artwork makes the story far more interesting than if it were a simple narrative work of historic crime.
It is an interesting tale, no matter who is telling it. It's a graphic novel, not a 360 page whodunit, and if you don't do graphic novels, you might consider not reading this book. But the whodunit here is strong and suspensefully told. If you do try it, I hope that story's narrative style -- meticulously detailed, with a quiet voice, description used to enhance the images -- would win you over to the idea that graphic art is a great storytelling medium.
While it's not long, the story is just as detailed as if it were a historical mystery, or a recreation of the courtroom drama that takes place when a young woman is accused of killing her secret lover. Madeleine Smith, by the way, was acquitted.
The story is a creepy one, but I admire Geary telling it in a factual, fairly straightforward manner, with only a smidgen of what I think of as "exclamation point sensationalism." The artist's style works very well for this genre -- painstaking, clean lines, all black and white, no color here to detract from the visuals.
His details stand out well, from the bricks on the houses of Scotland to the parlor curtains, woodwork to architecture. His style is rich without overwhelming the page (hard to do with some Victoriana). Although often the faces are no more than thumbnail size, all his characters are appropriate to the 1850s. I did feel that occasionally there were similar or limited facial expressions -- a sort of flat affect -- and every woman seemed to part her hair in the center but this is a petty concern. And Geary knows far more about the times than I do so maybe there were no other styles.
Madeleine Smith was from an upper-class Glasgow family. Her father and grandfather were well-known architects. She had a very traditional upbringing which included finishing school, fetes and balls and parties and shopping. With it all, she managed to carry on a romance with Jersey-born Frenchman Emile L'Anglier.
L'Anglier, from Geary's description, was a good man -- not of Smith's class, but educated, well-brought up, sophisticated (he spent time in Paris). Somehow a relationship developed, one that was both clandestine and wholly inappropriate for the times, involving the servants, and secret, often rather bold, letters (only her notes to him survived). Emile, incidentally, is painted very differently after his death.
But while Madeleine made extensive claims of love to Emile, calling herself his wife, and he claiming they were married, she allowed the attentions of another man. Even while protesting her love for Emile, she accepted the other man's proposal of marriage. Two months after the wedding, Emile died in agony, after a period of horrific, baffling stomach ailments.
An autopsy revealed that he had ingested a massive amount of arsenic. Even in the 1850s, arsenic was a handy but controlled poison; anyone buying it had to sign a register. Madeleine bought several packages of the poison, claiming it was very effective against the household rats. Apparently she was even heard to joke about having it, while he had been heard to wonder if his beloved had in fact poisoned him.
Smith was tried for the crime, but received a verdict of "not proven". Geary does not offer a solution, only examples of the testimony offered by witnesses, During the trial, parts of her racy letters to L'Anglier were read into the record. Like current celebrity suspects, Smith received a great deal of attention including marriage proposals while she was in jail.
I suspect most readers will reach the conclusion I did, based solely on what was presented in this short, but fascinating story, although the case reflects 1850s beliefs and morality, quite different from those we hold today in some ways.
Madeline Smith changed her name, and moved, living first in London, later in America. She married, then was left by her husband after almost 30 years of marriage. At the age of 80, she moved to New York City and she again married. Her family history is rather intriguing, offering a glimpse of radical politics; and some very modern ideas. Her past was apparently no secret -- yet there are many puzzles in the life of Madeleine Smith/Lena Wardle/Lena Sheehy. No one will ever adequately explain the agonizing death by arsenic of her early lover Emile L'Anglier nor can there be a simple explanation of the oddity that when Madeleine/Lena's death certificate stated she had died at the age of 64. She was in fact 92.
This is actually volume eight for Geary in his Treasury of Victorian Murders (which, oddly, reminded me of Edward Gorey's Dancing Cats and Neglected Murderesses). I will seek out others in this series, especially Geary's version of the Lizzie Borden story as Geary made the Smith story so intriguing that I want access to more of his work. In a relatively short work, he tells a richly layered story in a new way and I thought it was wonderfully presented.
Reviewed by Andi Shechter, July 2006
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