Book: Alias Grace
Author: Margaret Atwood
The name Grace Marks may not be familiar to the 21st century, but two centuries ago it was famously notorious.
The name was synonymous with two violent murders that took place in Canada in 1843. In 'Alias Grace', novelist Margaret Atwood uses real historical records to reconstruct the tale of these controversial crimes, focusing on the real life of Grace Marks, a teenage Irish-born housemaid to the wealthy Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper (and mistress) Nancy Montgomery. Marks was tried as an accomplice to stable hand James McDermott, who committed the murders and was subsequently hanged after being tried in court.
Public opinion of Marks’ role in the tragic mystery remained divided; was she a willing accomplice, or frightened victim coerced into the act? With a lawyer’s persuasion, she managed to avoid the same fate as McDermott, in exchange for life in prison and local asylums, where she remained until her mid-40s.
Atwood’s story opens several years into Marks’ sentence, her story sparking the interest of a young Dr. Simon Jordan, an American specializing in the emerging, but very rudimentary field of mental psychology. Jordan hopes to uncover the truth of what happened to Marks in the days before and after the murders. Within the confines of the prison warden’s home, Jordan listens to Marks’ story, which is one of hardship and loss, from her family’s life in Ireland, to their crossing the Atlantic to Canada, to being on her own as a scullery maid. What begins to fascinate the young doctor about his subject is the candidness and honesty of her confessions, which grows into compassion for her situation.
Atwood’s writing draws inspiration from traditional Victorian style; lavishly detailed dialogue, rich pastiche imagery and ambiance. But the tone is also fresh and cleverly infused with an acerbic wit and tone, revealing a stark portrait of the provincial lower class life of the time, particularly for women.
Also interesting is the character Jordan’s earnestness to employ new sciences to isolate the causes of what was written off as lunacy in criminals, and the questions he’s confronted with in determining his subject’s innocence, or guilt, whatever it may be.
In reality, it was never determined if Grace Marks had intent to murder Kinnear and Montgomery, as she was pardoned by the higher courts some 30 years after her sentencing.
NOIR’S TWO CENTS: Atwood’s fictional retelling of the notorious Grace Marks is an engaging tale of twists and turns, perfect for a true-life murder mystery.