Review: Fatal

Fatal: The Poisonous Life of a Female Serial KillerFatal: The Poisonous Life of a Female Serial Killer
by Harold Schechter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fatal: The Poisonous Life of a Female Serial Killer / B009NHBJJ2

I am a very big fan of Harold Schechter's historical true crime books. While the questionable covers and book subtitles seem sometimes a little over-the-top, the actual contents of the books are top-notch in my opinion. Schechter writes in a very engaging style that is accessible to the audience, and handles the facts of the case in a chronological order as an easy-to-follow narrative. He is careful to cite his sources as he goes and is very clear when we encounter gaps in the record where we don't know what happened. Any speculation on his part is marked plainly and we are walked through the logical steps. I appreciate that in a crime author, as too many authors are willing to blur fact and fiction.

This book covers the life and death of serial killer Jane Toppan, an "angel of death" serial killer who targeted her patients as a nurse, as well as occasional friends and family members. On the topic of female serial killers of the time period who used poison as their weapon of choice (who knew that was such a large category? Not me!) the book also devotes some time to the chronicles of Lydia Sherman and Sarah Jane Robinson, in order to set-up commonalities and compare and contrast their methods and motives. (And we get to read the newspapers' breathless comparisons to Lucretia Borgia, which was of course terribly unfair to her since she probably never poisoned anybody! #historical pet peeves, I guess.)

The usual trigger warnings apply for this book, being about serial killers after all, including sexual assault of victims and child death. There's also the added aspect here of patient-nurse abuse and targeting sick and elderly victims. I really appreciate Schechter as an author because he treats these delicate topics with care and respect, and affords the victims dignity; he isn't crass or irreverent or flippant like some crime authors are.

One of the things I enjoy about Schechter's books is the historical context. Toppan operated in a time when arsenic was available over-the-counter at general stores as rat poison, and when autopsies after death were the exception rather than the rule. A shocking number of her victims were chalked up to various illnesses--even ones that hadn't previously been diagnosed in the patients before--and it's a wonder whether or not she would have been caught if she hadn't gotten sloppy and started going after young healthy people in the prime of their lives. The details on how bodies were examined for poison in the early 1900s were especially interesting to me; her victims were autopsied *after* the bodies had been embalmed, which complicated the situation since the embalming process used arsenic.

If you're interested in historical true crime, or if you'd like to read more about female serial killers (which are of course considered a rarity... but this book convincingly argues that maybe they shouldn't be) then this is an excellent read that I highly recommend. Oh! There's also a really interesting dive into the assassination of President McKinley and how utterly terribly the medical personnel handled the situation, none of which I'd ever heard of before, so that was VERY interesting to learn from this rather unexpected source.

~ Ana Mardoll


Post a Comment