Sunday, June 23, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 61: Susan Glaspell, The Hossack Murder (#72)

Susan Glaspell, "The Hossack Murder" (1900-1) from True Crime: An American Anthology:

At a University of Chicago workshop, Debby Applegate described how she fixed her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Henry Ward Beecher by reconsidering it as a mystery story: the facts needed to be embedded in the narrative. I thought of this while reading the eight dispatches that make up Susan Glaspell's reporting on the still-unsolved Hossack murder because of the tension between facts and story here.

While the earlier articles stick to a no-nonsense, just the facts tone--the first is only 85 words!--Glaspell shifts gears into a more colorful, emotional, sentimental tone later, which is less journalistic and more personal. We get drops of this personal tone in some of the earlier pieces, as when we hear murder suspect Mrs. Hossack "looks like she would be dangerous if aroused to a point of hatred"; or when we hear that "Slowly but surely the prosecution in the Hossack murder case is weaving a web of circumstantial evidence about the defendant that will be hard to counteract."

But this personal tone comes out especially--and a little too much for my taste--in the Easter dispatch that begins, "Seldom, if ever, have the people of Indianola seen such an Easter sabbath as Sunday." Glaspell isn't clumsy--she uses the repetition of the question "Is she guilty?" and "Will they convict her?" to some effect. That first effect is actually to drive home the distance between guilt and conviction for a crime.

And yet, what strikes me most about this collection is how so much seems to be left out. Glaspell reports that the case against Mrs. Hossack weights heavily on the affair of the dog in the nighttime--but that's the first time we ever hear about the dog. (A little googling around will find some very interesting use of the dog Shep for both prosecution and defense.) Then there's the issue of the relation between Mr. and Mrs. Hossack, which is never really described--possibly because Glaspell is keeping to the court facts. (Though I really think the court case would look into the possibility of abuse as a motive for murder.) Finally, at the very end of this collection, we get this bomb-shell:
It is universally believed at Indianola that if Mrs. Hossack did not murder her husband she knows who did.
Wait, what? If this opinion was so wide-spread, why are we only hearing about it now in this abrupt fashion? Here's a moment where I feel that Glaspell is trying to walk a careful tightrope between telling an interesting story and sticking to the facts, and doesn't quite pull it off.

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