Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Arsenic and Clam Chowder by James Livingston

There was a brief period in highschool when I became obsessed with true crime novels- In Cold Blood, The Executioner's Song, Shot in the Heart- and so when I had the chance to review Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York by James D. Livingston it seemed like a good time to revisit my former love. Arsenic and Clam Chowder is a non-fiction account of the 1896 murder trial of Mary Alice Livingston, who was charged with killing her mother by lacing clam chowder with arsenic and having her daughter deliver it. If found guilty, Livingston faced the possibility of becoming the first woman to be executed using the electric chair.

Livingston has certainly done his research, and the story he tells is straightforward while incorporating details from the time period which make it realistic. However, perhaps because he didn't have the opportunity to talk to any of the individuals involved personally, I sometimes found it lacked the passion and richness I would have hoped for in order to become truly immersed in the story. I'm also not entirely sure that the story Livingston tells is entirely worthy of an entire novel- even at less than two hundred pages it often seemed like he was stretching things out, including a lot of information that felt irrelevant like the fashion for men's facial hair at the time (clean-shaven was out, beards were in).

In addition to the details of the trial, Livingston ends the book with two unique chapters. The first one contemplates what exactly beyond a reasonable doubt means and whether or not he believes Mary Alice was guilty. It provides an interest point for discussion on the book, as well as the philosophical implications of the death penalty, which isn't something you'd expect in a true crime novel. In the final chapter (or the Afterward) Livingston follows up with how everything turned out for the major characters in the book, including his own personal connection to Mary Alice. I particularly enjoyed the Afterward because it felt like the credits after a film which is based on a true story, when you find out what happened next, something you can only do if the actual event did not occur recently and which definitely satisfied my curiosity.

Ultimately, I think Livingston has found an interesting story to tell and does a fairly good job at telling it, although perhaps with more resources he would have been able to enrich it further. Although I wouldn't go outside your comfort zone to pick it up, for readers who enjoy either the time period, or true crime, Arsenic and Clam Chowder is certainly a worthwhile read.

Number of Pages:  192 pages
Published: July 2010
This review was a part of Pump Up Your Book Tours. Click here to read what other tour hosts thought. For the purpose of this review I was provided with a copy of the book which did not require a positive review. The opinions expressed in this post are my own. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the great review of Jim's book. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    Jim also created a song for the book. Readers can find a video on YouTube at if they're interested.

    Thanks again.



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