2016: 10. The Wilderness of Ruin

“In the early hours of Thursday, August 1, 1929, crowds formed in front of the main gate of the Massachusetts State Prison in Charlestown, a sprawling compund of brick and granite encircled by a tall, wrought-iron gate.”

The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer, Roseanne Montillo

Oh, this was a disappointment.  I am a super big sucker for well written true crime, particularly historic true crime (because then I don’t feel guilty about people who are still alive, and also, historical true crime is generally better written), but this book failed me.  First of all, because it fell prey to the classic “there was only enough story for an article, so we jammed in some other topic that was totally irrelevant” problem, and secondly, because there was some writing so bad that I actually underlined and wrote page numbers down, merely to complain about it on this blog (see below).

The premise is interesting - its about a serial killer who in 1871 starts attacking small children in Boston.  Turns out he is a child himself - 14 year old Jesse Pomery.  The book tells about the crime itself, the trial, and the subsequent life he spent in prison.  All very interesting, and it was a crime I’d never heard of, and obviously I like stories about Boston.  And look at the satisfyingly creepy cover?!  BUT, not having enough to fill a book, Montillo starts writing about Herman Melville, and how is books are about monomania, and maybe he went crazy at the end of his life.  And there is LITERALLY no connection between the Pomery case and Melville.  It drove me crazy.  The stuff about Melville was reasonably interesting, but I didn’t choose this to read book about Melville (and this wouldn’t be what I picked if I did).  If she’d padded out the novel with, oh, the history of prisons in America (there is a bit about that), or the history of criminal psychology, or something relevant, I wouldn’t have minded, but everytime we went back to Moby Dick, it threw me for a loop. 

AND, I am pretty sure this book was not edited. The writing was fine generally - I mean it’s not Proust, but it was passible.  But then absolutely ridiculous passages would trip me up.  For example (all pages from the paperback edition), describing Melville’s wife (pg. 186)

“But few saw her as a great beauty and her intelligence was not particularly impressive, though her studies show she had above-average capabilities.”  Which is it? Is she intelligent or not?

or describing their honeymoon (pg. 187) “the trip was a relaxing and restful ordeal”.  WHAT?

I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but that’s not great writing.  It makes no sense.

So, as much as I enjoyed reading about the ancient horrible crime (a ghoul, that’s me), I cannot recommend this.  It’s too all over the place, and there are better old fashioned crime books out there.  Read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, instead. 

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017