Three Authors Tackle Double Murder
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

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SMUTTYNOSE MURDERS

The Smuttynose Murders continue to fascinate and horrify. Already in 2009 three new treatments of the 1873 crime have appeared. We’ve added all three to our Smuttynose library, and offer a few comments for readers new to the story and for Smuttyholics alike. (continued below)

 

 

The first author to take on the 1873 double homicide on Smuttynose Island was local poet Celia Thaxter. Celia happened to be caring for her mother on nearby Appledore Island at the Isles of Shoals the night of March 5 when Louis Wagner rowed from Portsmouth, intending to quietly rob the Hontvet family on Smuttynose. Celia was among the first on the scene when a blood-streaked survivor, Maren Hontvet, told how Wagner killed her sister Karen and her sister-in-law Anethe. Celia’s account, one of the best essays she ever wrote, appeared in the Atlantic magazine in 1875, just weeks before Wagner was hanged in Maine.

MURDER STORY RETOLD THROUGH TIME

Detective author Edmund Pearson reported on the case in the early 20th century. Lyman Ruttledge, historian at Star Island, wrote a short, but detailed account of the murders in 1958. Anita Shreve fictionalized the story into the bestselling novel (later a failed film) called "Weight of Water". H. Paul Jeffers and many others, myself included, have written accounts of the murder. John Perrault wrote the ballad. Gary Sampson did the film. There has been more than one play, even a ballet.

smuttybook03This year we can add three more names to that list – Bob Oxman, David Faxon, and Emeric Spooner. All three are self-published authors whose works are as different as moonlight to midday.

Bob Oxman is working on a delicate hand-made series that is part comic book, part graphic novel. The second installment just arrived. The artwork is like nothing I’ve seen before, unless perhaps in Munch’s painting "The Scream". Each issue is small and hand-assembled, drawn in a primitive style. The first issue was a slight 12-pages, the second is twice that and with a color cover this time. Oxman is on his own strange trip, but as someone familiar with the story, I enjoy his sketchy visual interpretation. It seems to be a rough draft for something bigger to come.

David Faxon’s paperback "Cold Water Crossing" ($14.95) is a strong effort. For the first time someone has successfully told the basic murder story from beginning to end in clear plain English. Although a first-time author, Faxon writes well and he has done his homework, some of it on this web site, as he kindly notes. The book itself is well produced and looks, for all the world, like a commercial trade paperback.

smuttybook01Faxon has modeled his book after Truman Capote’s 1966 classic "In Cold Blood", which may be a bit like modeling your golf swing after Tiger Woods. Capote was breaking new literary ground when he produced the nonfiction novel, after six years of work. Capote did extensive first-person research into a case that happened in his own time. So when Capote’s narrator leaps into the mind of the killer or the victims, he does so with an extraordinary knowledge of the case and a brilliant artistic style. When Faxon does so, he is simply guessing at what we cannot know. Generally, I believe he guesses very well, but based on the scraps of evidence from a case more than 130-years old. The effect here is often jarring and disconcerting. We quickly lose track of what is fact and what is fiction. (Did Maren really look out the window? Was she really nervous?) Eventually the reader begins to wonder what is real at every turn of the page.

Faxon, like all of the new authors, is unfamiliar with Smuttynose Island and understandably gets a few details wrong – like the orientation of Wagner’s Cove and Haley’s Cove. But when he is summarizing the technical details of the trial and not going inside the heads of characters, or shifting back and forth through time a la Capote, his reporting can be crisp and effective. The book is also available in Kindle e-book format.

smuttybook02Emeric Spooner’s "Return to Smuttynose Island" $20) is a bit of a puzzle. An earnest effort, to be sure, this is more a private diary about the author’s search for the story, than the story itself. Spooner talks openly to the reader throughout, describing his thought process and offering candid, but often unstudied opinions as he goes. His "hook" seems to be that he is covering the story from a Maine, rather than a Portsmouth or Isles of Shoals perspective. The book, for reasons unknown, opens with another crime for the first 33 pages. The opening paragraph of the first chapter sets the casual, consistently ungrammatical style used throughout:

"Back when I was researching my first 2 books, yes there was actual research involved, I came across a tale, sure it did not come right out and ask to be told."

I am a big fan of self-published works and applaud everyone who makes the leap and spends the money. Spooner, however, desperately needs an editor, a fact-checker, and a proofreader to be taken seriously. His research is all over the map, sometimes wrong, especially when he seems to rely on Internet articles that sometimes lead him astray. But the author is endlessly enthusiastic when he "discovers" a new source, whether it is new or not. , Spooner is on a private treasure hunt to find research materials about murder cases that fascinate him, and he wants to take you along. It’s a bit like watching your best friendl write a term paper.

The author purchased a copy of the Wagner trial transcript and the bulk of Spooner’s book includes lengthy passages taken from it, plus transcribed newspaper articles, occasionally interrupted by personal observations. Like "Cold Water Crossing" this self-published paperback is well constructed visually, but unlike Faxon’s well-structured narrative, this is largely an annotated-sourcebook for researchers or true-crime addicts. Spooner does yeoman effort in digging at a few interesting footnotes, including the "hoax" confession of Maren and the location of Wagner's grave in Maine.

Both paperback books are available on Amazon.com.