Book reviews for A Thoroughly Wicked Woman:
Canadian Literature #212 General Issue (Spring 2012)
Hidden and Exposed in British Columbia
Reviews by Reece Steinberg
. . . Another Sunshine Coast author, Betty Keller, writes of early twentieth century Vancouver, centring on Esther Jones and Theresa Jackson, a mother and daughter who run a boarding house and gently scandalize the community by living without husbands. The women, initially accused of evading rent, quickly become murderers in the eyes of the public when Theresa's recently returned husband turns up dead. Sensational news coverage sways public opinion as well as the courts. From their quiet, private lives they are thrust into the public eye, with their images splashed across the front of daily newspapers. The story is based on a historical case and features many important figures of the time. Lawyers, judges and newspaper staff are depicted in sidebars with photographs and a brief description. Though the story takes place before the First World War, the themes are contemporary: the influence of the mass media on the public, the legal system's frailty and corruption, and the misogyny the two women face.
this.org Jan/Feb 2011
A Thoroughly Wicked Woman
Reviewed by Sigal Samuel
In 1905 gold prospector Thomas Jackson died of strychnine poisoning, leaving behind four suspects: Jackson's lachrymose wife, Theresa; his tough-a-nails mother-in-law, Esther; and two male boarders in the family home, Fisher and Exall. Unable to make murder charges stick, police arrested the two women for perjury.
Betty Keller's A Thoroughly Wicked Woman recounts these true events from Vancouver's past, drawing heavily on newspaper reports and official transcripts of the court proceedings to ensure historical accuracy. Keller excels at reconstructing imagined dialogue and maintaining whodunit-style suspense-evidence of her meticulous research is apparent on every page, although at times the story creaks under the weight of too much detail.
By revealing how bias against independent women, anti-American sentiment, and other prejudices worked against Theresa and Esther, the book creates something akin to a feminist counter-narrative. The fact that both women supported themselves by offering room and board to male clients offended the sensibilities of their devout neighbours, who clamoured for retribution. Theresa and Esther are likewise depicted as the victims of young lawyers vying to make names for themselves and of reporters all too ready to sensationalize a trial to sell papers-even if it cost two women their lives.
Nanaimo News Bulletin and SummerlandReview.com May 23, 2011
Bookmark: A Thoroughly Wicked Woman
Reviewed by Melissa Fryer
In November 1905 Thomas Jackson, 48, returned from the goldfields of Interior BC to his Vancouver home. Four days later he was dead from strychnine poisoning.
Suspicion was cast on Jackson's 24-year-old wife, Theresa, followed by her American mother and two boarders.
A Thoroughly Wicked Woman details how the two women were arrested-not for murder but for perjury-and how the people who were supposed to stand up for the best interests-from lawyers to reporters-instead served their own interests.
While fledgling lawyers established reputations with grandiose courtroom speeches and reporters dug up salacious details for victory in circulation wars, the two women languished in jail. No one was ever charged with the murder of Jackson.
Wicked Woman is based on a true story from the annals of Vancouver's history that people rarely speak of.
BC Studies: The British Columbia Quarterly. No. 173, Spring 2012.
A Thoroughly Wicked Woman: Murder, Perjury and Trial by Newspaper
Reviewed by Daniel Francis
Betty Keller has a fascination with the early social history of Vancouver that dates back at least to 1986 when she published On the Shady Side: Vancouver 1886 -1914, her lively study of crooks and cops in the pre-war city. In A Thoroughly Wicked Woman her interest in the bad apples on the family tree continues, though with this new book Keller has exchanged roles from historian to novelist. That said, it is really not much of a switch. Her earlier book was history that at times read like fiction; her latest is a novel that keeps scrupulously close to real events.
A Thoroughly Wicked Woman is based on a murder that occurred in Vancouver in November 1905. Thomas Jackson, a middle-aged prospector who had just returned from the field to his Vancouver home, died when someone spiked his morning cocktail of Epsom salts and beer with strychnine. There were several suspects, including his young wife Theresa and her mother Esther Jones, who lived with the couple at their boarding house on Melville Street. Eventually Theresa and Esther went to trial, not for murder but for perjury. Convicted, they both served several months in the provincial penitentiary. But the murder remained unsolved.
The dramatis personae of Keller's story are all actual historical figures, including publishers Walter Nichol and Louis Taylor, Mayor Frederick Buscombe, and police chief Samuel North. Keller bases her narrative on the newspaper accounts of the murder and the courtroom dramatics which followed. It is when these sources fail her that she invents, imagining the domestic life in the victim's home and the conversations between many of the characters.
Keller pursues several themes in her book. One is the social role of women and their dependence on, and independence from, their spouses. Another is the changing dynamic of the daily press. The pre-war period was an exciting time for newspapers, which were losing their strict affiliations with political parties and becoming populist vehicles of news and information. The Jackson murder provides an interesting case study of how this transformation was playing itself out in Vancouver. Another issue is prostitution, which was openly practiced in Vancouver at the time and which the police and local politicians were attempting to accommodate and/or eradicate. All of these themes provide the larger context within which Keller's crime story unfolds.
Choosing to tell her story as fiction, Keller allows herself the freedom to invent, but it is a freedom she does not take enough advantage of, instead sticking so close to the main facts of the actual crime that a reader might wonder why she chose fiction at all. The choice means that she cannot offer the kind of context and analysis that non-fiction allows so that none of her themes is pursued in much depth. That said, her book rescues a curious legal case from obscurity and provides a lively snapshot of the city and several of its leading citizens as it came of age during the heady decade of prosperity and growth that preceded the First World War.