Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Devil's Rooming House

The True Story of America's Deadliest Female Serial Killer
by M. William Phelps

This is completely outside my usual scope of subject matter. But I saw this book come back to the library and thought it looked interesting: female serial killer, Windsor Ct (not far from where I grew up). I thought this book was going to be great: compelling, shocking, maybe even a little gruesome. But in reality, it wasn't any of that.

The first part of the book is nearly entirely about the 1911 heat wave that hit New England. If I wanted to read about the 1911 heat wave, I would read Hot Time in the Old Town by Edward Cohen. But I don't (not right now), and I'm not. I want to read a book about the female serial killer Amy Archer from Windsor, Connecticut during the early 1900s. And, silly me, I thought that's what I was getting. Clearly Phelps included the information about the heat wave to say to the readers, This is an excuse Amy could have used to explain away or cover up the murders committed: lots of elderly were dying because of the extreme heat. But Phelps didn't say that, and neither did Amy for that matter. So there was no need for that section whatsoever. It's completely infuriating. Stick to the story you're telling.

The timeline is completely screwy in this book. It jumps around a lot from the late 1800s to early 1900s and beyond, and can be extremely frustrating. I think if Phelps wanted to paint a clear picture of the times and thoroughly explain events leading up to Amy Archer's investigation, he should have done it much more chronologically. One would think that would be the logical approach in this kind of book.

Worst is that it seemed Phelps was trying to make the story more dramatic, which had the complete opposite affect. He added unnecessary hyperbole like, "[Archer] was no more a God-fearing Christian than Lucifer himself." And his attempts at sarcastic authorial intrusions were miserable: "Indigestion? If that was true, it was some case all right." It really detracts from the story.

Phelps also frequently alludes to Amy Archer's devout nature, but it is never really shown. She's called "Sister Amy" around town and was described to be "bible-toting," and yet there is no clear picture of her as a religious woman. At the end of the book, Phelps paints Archer as a woman using her pious nature to veil her sociopathic nature, which isn't truly evident. The reader gets no real sense of who Amy Archer was, so I had a difficult time jumping to Phelps's conclusion.

The fact is, this just isn't a good book, which is shocking considering how incredible the subject matter is. There is no finesse to this book. It is meant to come across as journalistic, but with the author's embellishments, it falls somewhere left of that. This book would have been much more successful if written with the players in mind. By that I mean I want to know more about Amy Archer and Dr. King and the others involved. It should have been written from the perspective of inmate Franklin Andrews. That way it would have been a more enveloping story, and could still encompass all Phelps's research (The book is extremely well researched, although to almost to an exhaustive and unnecessary degree.) Though, then I suppose it couldn't be considered a "true crime" book, but historical fiction or creative non-fiction.

The Devil's Rooming House in a nutshell: In the early 1900s, Amy Archer opened a home for the aged and convalescent and slowly killed her inmates by arsenic poison in order to make more money by filling more beds. No one suspected her. It took people far too long to even suspect anything, despite the fact that large numbers of inmates were dying and being carried away in the middle of the night. Amy played the insanity/drug addict card during the trial and spent the rest of her life hospitalized.

Feel free to pass this one up when perusing your library's book shelves.

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