Black River Road by Debra Komar

A question of character…

😀 😀 😀 😀

black-river-roadOne day in 1869, well-to-do architect John Munroe drove his mistress, Maggie Vail, and their baby daughter out in a cab to Black River Road near Saint John (in Canada). All three got out, ostensibly to visit friends, and later Munroe returned alone. He told the cab driver that Maggie would be staying with the friends. Some months later, the putrified and unidentifiable remains of a woman and child were found by people out picking berries near Black River Road.

Debra Komar starts this true crime story by discussing the trial of Jeffrey Dahmer, and the court’s decision that, despite the nature of his crimes, he was sane and could be held responsible for his actions. This decision was reached on the basis of evidence from Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist, who developed the theory of “universal lethality” – that all people have it in them to kill, and it is only social institutions that train us not to. Komar suggests that before this, character played a large part in criminal trials, including John Munroe’s, at a time when forensic science was still in its infancy. There was, she suggests, a widespread feeling that men of good character (aka rich people) wouldn’t commit horrific crimes, and that moral degeneracy was the preserve of the poor.

Komar then takes us back to tell us the story of how Munroe and Maggie became involved. Munroe was the spoiled child of an indulgent father. By the time he met Maggie, he was an upcoming architect who had married well, but for social position rather than love. His wife, however, didn’t show him the adoration he felt he deserved, so Munroe looked elsewhere. Poor Maggie – unmarried, overweight, and not very attractive – was willing to adore him as much as he liked. When the inevitable happened and her child was born, Munroe attempted to dump them, but Maggie wasn’t so easily dumped. Munroe played hot and cold with her, sometimes turning up unexpectedly, other times writing to her that she should stop contacting him. And then Maggie and child disappeared. Maggie’s sister received a letter, purporting to come from the illiterate Maggie, to the effect that she had met another man and gone off to Chicago to marry him.

This part of the story is very well told, giving a real feel for the coldness of Munroe’s character, and the rather desperate attempts of Maggie, now with a ruined reputation, to force him to meet his obligations to her and their child. The focus of the book is very much on this particular story, but we do get some idea of the wider society of the time, with the usual hypocritical gender bias that despised and ostracised an unmarried mother while cheerfully continuing to respect a male adulterer.

The story then moves on to the investigation and subsequent trial, with Komar showing at each stage how Munroe’s respectable position in society led to a widespread refusal to accept his possible guilt. The newspapers ran stories in outraged defence of him, and thirty-five people were called to give evidence of his good character, even though some of them barely knew him except through business dealings. The problem of identification added a layer of difficulty to the prosecution, and Komar gives dramatic, well written accounts of witnesses having to identify pieces of clothing or, gruesomely, the hair of the corpse.

An interesting crime story, well researched and well written. Komar’s decision to leave all reference to her sources to the notes at the back means there’s a good flow to the narration of events. The fairly narrow focus on the crime keeps the book down to a fairly shortish length. However, it also means we don’t get an in-depth picture of the society, nor of Munroe’s life beyond the crime – for example, we learn little about his relationship with his wife and legitimate children, before or during the trial. Within those limits, though, it’s an enjoyable read that I recommend to fans of true crime.

A re-enactment of the finding of the bodies...
A re-enactment of the finding of the bodies…

* * * * * * *

Spoiler ahead – if you don’t want to know the result of the trial, stop reading now!

True crime books tend to want to make a point and sometimes that rather works against them. I felt this was a case in point. During the trial, as many people were as willing to accuse Munroe as to defend him, though undoubtedly the establishment rallied round him to a large degree. But the police arrested him promptly, the trial allowed a good deal of leeway to the prosecution as well as to the defence, and when the question was finally put to the jury, they found him guilty in under an hour. If the argument is that good character was a strong defence, then it doesn’t seem to have worked in Munroe’s case. Despite appeals from his father, the government promptly refused mercy and Munroe hanged.

Debra Komar
Debra Komar

I had my doubts from the beginning, in fact, as to how well Komar would be able to make the case, because certainly Munroe was not the first “respectable” murderer to hang, nor the last. My cynical nature started out thinking that most humans probably had worked out long before Dietz made it a “theory” that murder is not the exclusive preserve of the obviously insane or degenerate, and I felt the outcome rather proved that than otherwise. This was a story that was interesting enough in its own right – it didn’t really need to make a point. In fact, I felt it made a quite different, and equally interesting, point – namely that, if the prosecution have good evidence, then juries are well able to judge guilt despite a defendant’s previous character, social position or the moral outrage of the press and establishment.

Overall, I’d have been happier to see rather less emphasis on that angle and a wider look at society and Munroe’s life instead. But these things are always subjective, and a different reader is quite likely to feel differently. I enjoyed it despite this reservation, and recommend it both for the story of the crime and as an interesting look at how the Canadian justice system worked at that time, quite efficiently it seems.

Debra Komar was recommended to me by the lovely Naomi at Consumed by Ink. Thanks, Naomi!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Goose Lane.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

43 thoughts on “Black River Road by Debra Komar

  1. This sounds right up my street! I do love a good true crime novel. However, as you know, I shall be otherwise engaged with the dear Mr Horowitz for the foreseeable, but I shall keep this one in mind for later on, perhaps. And if you don’t mind me saying so, what a super review!

  2. I agree, it does look interesting. But I agree with your opinion that historical fiction is best when it presents a full picture of society at that time (as well as the accused’s situation.) It’s also more educational too.

    • Yes, that’s mostly what I like about true crime, getting to know about the way society worked in the past. This book did that to a degree, but not as much as the likes of Kate Summerscale does. Still a good read, though…

  3. I understand exactly what you mean, FictionFan, about the focus and the emphasis. Still, this sounds like a fascinating story, and it’s a true crime that I don’t know very much about, if I’m being honest. I may have to *voice drops to a whisper, so as to avoid alerting TBR* add it to the list.

    • I hadn’t heard of this one either, and it was interesting to read one set in Canada for a change. And very well told even if I didn’t think the “angle” completely worked – I think your TBR would thoroughly appreciate it… 😉

  4. Phewf. Glad you liked it! In fact, I might have to add it to my own list, along with the other 2 I haven’t read yet. 🙂 I do like learning about the development of the justice system – that was one of my favourite parts about her first book. That one also had quite a bit about the different families living in the area at the time and the background of the characters. Because I haven’t read them all, I don’t know how they vary in terms of broader social history – some may have more of it than others.

    • I did, so thanks for the recommendation! I must try to get hold of her others too – it was interesting to read one about a different country for a change, and make comparisons between the way the justice systems worked. Even though this one didn’t go too much into the social history side of things I still found it interesting, and once I got used to her leaving all the sources to the notes at the back, I quite liked it – it made the narrative flow more smoothly. I’m more used to true crime writers discussing their sources as they go. Good stuff! 🙂

  5. How splendid. I enjoyed your review enormously, but without ANY desire to threaten the TBR (I have just bought a Kindle title on offer and surrendered to a kindly request from one of my ‘favourite’ publishers to download a title from the Galley, so it is enormously cheering not to go for 3 strikes in as many minutes) I wish you a wealth of wonderful reviews of titles not in my genre!

    • This was my last review for the foreseeable future – Moby-Dick may have put me off reading for life! It’s taken me about three weeks to struggle to 25% and I’ve now discovered I’m spending all my reading time playing computer games! I might have to start reviewing them instead just to fill up the empty space on the blog… Needless to say, my reading slump hasn’t stopped me acquiring more books though!

      • Oh I’m SO sorry FF. Well, I shall look out for some fill-in reviews – perhaps letting Tommy and Tuppence have guest blogger status? I have a rapidly increasing pile of recent requests and also recent buys as well. Though I must admit that discovering some of what I have requested or bought has a page count of under 300 has influenced my keenness considerably!

        I take it that you have NOT been having a WHALE of a time

        • I might do some of these tags and “awards” that kinda pile up. But some of them are quite hard, like the one that demands I tell seven interesting things about myself. Seven?!? I got stuck on 1…

          Yes, I think I’m going to reorganise the reading so I can read some short ones alongside the whale, and just look on it as an ongoing project for the next several weeks. It comes and goes – some quite good bits interspersed with incredibly long dull passages. But even the quite good bits are only… well, quite good.

  6. Ooh well you’ve returned the favour haven’t you? How on earth am I supposed to resist the lure of this one? Thanks for a great review – I skipped the last section so that I can find out the result of the trial for myself…

    • Hurrah! I think you’ll enjoy this one, and it was interesting to read one set in Canada and make comparisons between there and here. And I was well overdue for tempting you… 😉

  7. A great review, as always, FF! I’m inclined to pass due to my TBR needing a diet. But you know I can always be persuaded with an excellent literary tale. I shall wait for the FF seal of approval on that front. In the meantime, I’m reading through a lot of books…nothing as great as The Girls, I’m afraid, but enjoyable. Now I really must pop some corn to throw at my TV for tonight’s debate!

    • Thank you! 😀 Sadly you’ll be safe around here for a while – Moby-Dick has killed me! Three weeks to read 25% and now I seem to have given up reading completely. The last time I was forced to read Melville (at Uni) it took me about four years to really start enjoying reading again… what was I thinking??? But I’ve abandoned so many books recently I feel I must persevere. At least my slump is allowing me to watch election coverage obsessively… I’m actually anxious about the debate tonight! I’ll be talking with an American accent soon… 😉

      • I say abandon MD! I don’t want Melville to put you off from reading. I need something to distract me from this awful election. Of course, I thought H did great. But that orange psychopath has set the bar so low, I fear the damage to our political system is unforeseeable. #proudnastylady 😉

        • I shall give it another 50 pages and if he doesn’t do better it’s the recycling bin for him! Isn’t it horrible? (The election, not M-D). I thought Hillary won hands down but then I always do. It’s beyond me how anyone can listen to Trump for a moment and still want him to be President – everything about him makes my skin crawl. But this nonsense about the vote-rigging has got to be the lowest of all (if you exclude the #billybushmademedoit horror… ugh!)

          • Agreed! It’s all very nonsensical. I tried wrapping my brain around it for 1.5 years. I’m amazed at how low we sunk. He’s a disgraceful stain on American politics! The rigged election idea is a pathetic way for him to save face and a sure way to tear our country apart — not that he cares because of course he only cares about himself. I’m hoping Hillary can pull off a landslide and leave him way down in the ditch where he belongs!

            • Yes, it would be great if she could take the Senate – as an outsider looking in, it seems to me it’s the gridlock that has allowed Trump to rise. People are so fed up that nothing ever seems to get done. We have the opposite problem – once we vote a government in they can basically do anything they like for the next five years. And now we’ve got a Prime Minister nobody voted for at all… gah!

  8. I wondered how this book was. Like you, I would have wanted more information on Munroe’s life and the social mores. Great review though. You make me want to give this a shot.

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