Book Review: The Dead Alive, by Wilkie Collins

deadaliveThe Dead Alive by Wilkie Collins

On the evidence of The Dead Alive, Scott Turow [has written] that Wilkie Collins might well be the first author of a legal thriller. Here is the lawyer out of sorts with his profession; the legal process gone awry; even a touch of romance to soften the rigors of the law. And here, too, recast as fiction, is the United States’ first documented wrongful conviction case. Side by side with the novel, this book presents the real-life legal thriller Collins used as his model-the story of two brothers, Jesse and Stephen Boorn, sentenced to death in Vermont in 1819 for the murder of their brother-in-law, and belatedly exonerated when their “victim” showed up alive and well in New Jersey in 1820. Rob Warden, one of the nation’s most eloquent and effective advocates for the wrongly convicted, reconsiders the facts of the Boorn case for what they can tell us about the systemic flaws that produced this first known miscarriage of justice-flaws that continue to riddle our system of justice today.

A tale of false confessions and jailhouse snitches, of evidence overlooked and justice more blinkered than blind, the Boorns’ story reminds us of the perennial nature of the errors at the heart of American jurisprudence-and of the need to question and correct a system that regularly condemns the innocent.

Apparently inspired by a true story, Lefrank – an overworked solicitor told to rest by his doctor – travels from London to America to stay with distant relations.

He is barely in the house when he senses a strange undercurrent between his cousins, the estate manager and and a young American woman (engaged to one of the cousins) who is living in the house.

Heated arguments and secret assignations in the moonlit garden ensue over the next few days and it’s not long before the estate manager disappears in strange circumstances. Rumours abound, some of the man’s effects are found in the local lime kiln and the sons are soon arrested and charged with his murder.

The sons are found guilty, only to have their conviction overturned when the man makes a sudden return. Meanwhile love has blossomed between LeFrank and the young woman in the house…..

A nicely plotted short story, no extraneous words to fluff it up to a novella or a novel, Collins told all that had to be told

(read as part of The Classics Club challenge and my list is here)


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