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Miss Lizzie    by Walter Satterthwait order for
Miss Lizzie
by Walter Satterthwait
Order:  USA  Can
iUniverse, 2000 (1989)
Hardcover, Paperback
* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Walter Satterthwait has acquired a following with his Southwestern US mysteries featuring Joshua Croft. However, before the Croft books, he wrote a wonderful standalone titled Miss Lizzie. Set in 1921, in a shore town near Boston, it features one of the best detective teams in years. Thirteen year old Amanda Burton and her family are staying at the shore for the summer and enjoying the usual beach comforts when she encounters her neighbor Miss Lizzie. Now a 60-year-old woman, Miss Lizzie is none other than the infamous Lizzie Borden of the nursery rhyme, who allegedly stabbed both her mother and father to death 30 years earlier.

Both characters are superbly drawn. Amanda has the innocence and curiosity of a thirteen-year-old (in those days at least) that reminded me strongly of the narrator Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. Miss Lizzie is a feisty and intelligent woman who does not suffer fools gladly. Although acquitted of her parents' murder, she is still suspected by most people of having done the deed, and so suffers from social ostracism. The two are drawn together when Miss Lizzie invites Amanda to tea and then proceeds to teach her card tricks.

Their friendship becomes a bright spot in Amanda's summer and a refuge from the vacation house she shares with her father, 17-year-old brother William and her disagreeable step-mother Audrey. After Audrey is found hacked to death by a hatchet one morning just after she has had a terrible fight with William and Amanda, suspicion falls on both William and on Lizzie, who many fear is up to her old tricks again.

Miss Lizzie quickly assembles a detective team of Pinkertons and obtains a lawyer. Of course, she and Amanda are also intimately involved with the investigation. All the characters they encounter, from the 20-year-old flapper to the town bigot and the local spiritualist, are memorably created. The story is narrated by Amanda and the perspective of her adult wisdom in remembering her adolescent innocence is charming. At one point she describes a failing of her father in this way: 'Decades can pass, even entire lives, before we forgive our parents their humanity.' Her descriptions of scenes are equally vivid, such as when a character 'sank to her knees like a marionette whose strings had been clipped'.

Although I could have continued reading about Miss Lizzie and Amanda forever, the story too soon reached a gripping and totally surprising ending. Anyone who has not yet read Miss Lizzie should immediately look for it, since they will not soon forget it.

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