by Nicholas Nicastro
2018, Endeavor Media, e-book
A family, or relationship, can seem warm and happy. That is from the outside looking in. As a reporter covering murder trials, however, I discovered that in many cases, the killing is the tragic culmination of a long period of hidden problems, conflicts, and tensions. The dramatic revelations of that which had been hidden is no doubt one of the attractions for true crime stories.
Nicholas Nicastro in ELLA MAUD provides us a fictionalized account of one such story: The apparent murder of Nell Cropsey at the turn of the 20th century in North Carolina. As Nicastro noted, “The Nell Cropsey story is a familiar one today: an attractive, middle-class white girl disappears, triggering a frenzy of media coverage that culminates in a high-profile trial… It is an archetypal American story, set in a time when the mass media were assuming their modern forms, and when millions of young people were first tasting the freedom of industrial life...”
The story is not told in the usual nonfiction “true crime” style, but rather as a literary endeavor. Though the apparent murder of the daughter of a prominent family is at the center of the tale, Nicastro explores a variety of other themes: the changing society from the Gilded Age through World War I; how repressed guilt can destroy lives; how a town can fall prey to a hysteria based on only the flimsiest of facts; and how the criminal justice system can fail the innocent.
Rather than telling the story in a straightforward, sequential way, perspectives and time settings are mixed. It is an effective literary technique, but is used sparingly. Interest is sustained because while we have an idea of what happened relatively early in the story, it is only toward the end that the truth is fully revealed.
Nicastro has apparently done extensive research into the case. News stories and excerpts from the trial transcripts of the man charged with Nell’s murder provide authenticity and interest. They are also of such length, however, that they can somewhat slow the flow of the story.
Those looking for a hero who will swoop in at the end and save they day, or looking for a happy ending, will be disappointed. This is the kind of real life story in which there are no pure heroes or villains and happy endings are rare. On the other hand, this would be a good choice for those looking for an exploration of the problems, conflicts, and tensions of a family and how the consequences can ripple far beyond them.