Reviewed by Sara Hodon
The Murderer’s Maid: A Lizzie Borden Novel
by Erika Mailman
Hardcover, 398 pages, $25.00, October 30, 2017, ISBN-13: 978-0997066449
Over 100 years later, the story of Lizzie Borden—the infamous accused murderess who allegedly killed her father Andrew and stepmother Abby with an axe in the family’s Fall River, Massachusetts home in 1892—still holds a kind of morbid fascination for true crime and history buffs. The murders, and the family tensions which may have caused them, is the foundation of Erika Mailman’s novel, The Murderer’s Maid. The Borden murders also influence the novel’s parallel storyline, set in present-day. Because of a tragedy in her past that continues to haunt her, Brooke is a young barista reluctant to put down roots or share her real identity with anyone. Her penchant for true crime novels leads her to do some research on her own family; ironically, she learns that she’s a descendant of one of the biggest true crime figures of them all.
Family relationships are at the center of both storylines, although in decidedly different circumstances. For the plot focused on the Bordens (besides Lizzie and her parents, her older sister Emma also lives in the family home), rather than have a relative serve as narrator, Mailman instead tells the story in third-person from the perspective of Bridget Sullivan, the Bordens’ young domestic who saw the family’s eccentric ways firsthand (and was also in the home at the time of the murders). Mailman’s choice is interesting, as it both offers an insider’s look at the family dynamics, but offers no clear answers as to the actual murderer. The Bordens were among the wealthier families in Fall River, yet Andrew Borden watched every penny; his frugal ways dictated how his wife ran the household. His business dealings also created enemies in the community, and initially it was thought that a non-relative committed the murders. The case remains unsolved to this day. Fellow domestics employed by the Bordens’ neighbors and other families in town warn Bridget that her tenure in the house will likely be short-lived—the family is simply too odd (the daughters aloof and self-centered; Andrew Borden, too frugal and ruthless; Abby Borden, a bit of a stranger in her own home) for most employees to tolerate for very long. Bridget ignores the warnings—like many young immigrants, she needs the job so she can send money home to her family in Ireland. The reality of life in the Borden home, of course, is nothing like Bridget had ever imagined. (Historic sidenote: It is reported—and Mailman mentions this several times in the book—that Lizzie Borden had a secret lover who got her pregnant. Much of their story is lost to history.)
Brooke is a young woman tired of running and constantly looking over her shoulder. The daughter of a domestic, Brooke was present when the wife of her mother’s employer drowned mysteriously. The woman’s two sons are harrowing figures for both Brooke and her mother, blaming them for their mother’s death. Brooke wants to put down roots and form actual relationships with others—both friendship and romantic, but it seems impossible. Since her mother’s death, Brooke is alone and adrift, yet feels if she stops living life the way she has, her pursuers will find her. It’s that yearning for family and knowing her background that leads to two interesting discoveries—her connection to the Bordens, and her father’s identity. Although she is initially more interested in learning more about her father, her ancestry is too compelling to ignore and she’s sidetracked by the Borden family murders and her connection to them. Brooke’s natural defensiveness begins to crack slightly when she meets Anthony, a local attorney and regular at the coffee shop where she works. Her first reaction is to keep him at arm’s length as she has with so many others before, but he gets under her skin and she finds herself wanting something more. As a testament to how convincingly Mailman developed Brooke’s character (and how reluctant she was to trust others), I was suspicious of Anthony throughout the whole novel, but a twist ending redeemed him.
Meanwhile, the Borden storyline clearly demonstrates how the crime created a ripple effect for everyone involved. The Borden sisters, already not exactly beloved members of the Fall River community, are essentially shunned and for the next decade, live together in a house they purchased. (Sidenote: The sisters had a falling out in 1905. Emma moves out of the house and the sisters never speak again. Lizzie died in 1927; Emma died a few days later). Bridget Sullivan finds another job as a domestic in a different household, later marrying and moving to the Midwest. No other suspects were ever identified in the murders, and Bridget Sullivan gave no further testimony, leaving the case cold.
The more Brooke learns about her ancestry, the more she wants to know. Besides her mother, she really has no sense of her family history, so she gets more curious with each new discovery. Her relationship with Anthony gives her the confidence to learn more about herself and who she is. She tracks down and contacts her father, whom she never knew. She and Anthony agree to visit the Borden homestead (now a bed and breakfast) as a fact-finding mission to fill in additional pieces of her personal history.
Fans of historical fiction (especially those based on true events) will likely enjoyThe Murderer’s Maid. Mailman clearly did her research—she included some of the documented incidents that are now part of the Borden family lore, and creates an interesting secondary storyline that weaves together the past and present into a compelling read.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in over two dozen print and online publications.