Thursday, May 26, 2011

Book Review: The Devil's Rooming House by M. William Phelps

I don't generally read true crime, and I'm not quite sure what possessed me to check The Devil's Rooming House out of the library. I maintain that true crime novels serve to satisfy the worst human instincts: voyeuristically ogling the misery and depravity of fellow members of the human race. I think I was hoping that The Devil's Rooming House would have something of a historical bent, as I am generally interested in that point in history.

Either way, it turned out to be a pretty typical work on a serial killer: Amy Archer-Gilligan, a pioneer of the old folk's home industry who swindled her clients out of their savings and then killed them by lacing their food and drinks with arsenic, thereby opening their spaces in the house for new victims. The story was later adapted into a play: Arsenic and Old Lace. Phelps relates Archer-Gilligan's story from the beginning: the purchase of the home and the untimely death of her first husband to her ultimate conviction and sequestering in a mental hospital.

While it's mostly well-written, the narrative itself is split up and juggled very ham-handedly. It's also quite repetitive and becomes bogged down in multiple places. I can't help but feel that it should have been substantially shorter than it actually was, and while informative, I didn't leave the experience of reading it feeling particularly enlightened. 2 out of 5 stars.

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