The long road to this March’s publication of The Trial of Lizzie Borden, Cara Robertson’s thorough and provocative telling of the 1892 crime that gripped America and its aftermath, is a unique story second only to the mystery surrounding Lizzie Borden herself, according to Jonathan Karp, president and publisher at Simon & Schuster. Borden, infamous mainly from that earworm children’s jingle, was a genteel young lady who was accused of axing her father, Andrew, and stepmother, Abby, to death in their Fall River, Mass., home and was acquitted in a sensational trial.
In 2002, when Karp was a Random House editor, he bought North American rights to the book from Tina Bennett, then at Janklow & Nesbit; publication was set for 2005. Karp purchased the book on a detailed proposal and says he was “knocked out” by it. His enthusiasm hasn’t waned over the intervening years. First of all, Karp tells me, “when Tina Bennett calls, you snap to attention, and this was in the wake of the O.J. Simpson trial.” He adds, “I had never thought of the Lizzie Borden story as a trial, but here was this author—a serious scholar who was writing history that read like fiction.” Robertson’s pitch, he says, had him in six words: “Locked room mystery written by Sophocles.”
As of 2005, Karp hadn’t seen anything else. He left Random (“I was sad to leave this book”) and Bennett joined William Morris Endeavor.
Robertson tells me, “Looking back, it seems like it should have been easier to write this book, but it took me a long time to figure out how to tell the story. I think I had to age into it.”
Borden was the subject of Robertson’s undergraduate thesis at Harvard in 1990. She says that a professor suggested she “take a year to make it into a book.” Instead Robertson went off to Oxford for a PhD in English, followed by a law degree from Stanford (she was at the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague when she signed with Karp in 2002). But “the story kept calling to me,” she says. “I love archiving and researching, and something new and tantalizing was always turning up, like the papers of the prosecutor, Hosea Knowlton, because Yankee families were reluctant to reveal what they knew.” Robertson notes that public trials are a window into the culture of each age; they highlight the “tender points,” she says.
Bennett met Robertson through an industry friend from Stanford and from Robertson’s background knew “there was no question she was a serious person with an extraordinary mind.” When I comment that the Borden story has been widely covered, she astutely corrects me: “It’s a legendary true crime story. But I don’t think many people actually have a clear picture of what happened, or of the Gilded Age world Lizzie lived in.”
Bennett says she originally sold the book to Karp at auction (“Jon instantly understood the dark allure of the story, both as an important episode in American history, and as an intimate, immersive read”), and when it again became available, she sent the manuscript to him, as an exclusive, in fall 2016. They signed the deal in September. “I never gave up,” Karp says. “It was like I recovered my lost youth!”
An interesting aspect of the Borden story, according to Karp, is that it’s meant something different to each generation. “There’s a changing kaleidoscope of motivations and preoccupations, and Cara has been assiduous in sorting through the different theories,” he says.
Bennett adds that “the psychological mystery of the story captures every generation in a different way.”
The story can be seen through the prisms of mental illness, parental neglect, abuse, and feminism. Karp tells me there was no consensus among early S&S readers as to Borden’s guilt or innocence. Robertson says that she deliberately kept the possibilities open as she went back and forth. The enigma continues: who else could have done it? The murder was so violent, done in such close proximity. How could an ordinary woman have committed such a vicious act?
Robertson says she’s decided “not to spoil the experience—to let readers puzzle it out for themselves.” And she adds, “If there was an easy answer, it wouldn’t be so intriguing.”
Karp sees The Trial of Lizzie Borden as a woman’s story, important in today’s climate. A cross-country tour is planned, including appearances in Boston, Cambridge, and, yes, Fall River. As for what Karp paid this second time around, he will only say, “Anything associated with Lizzie Borden is a killing!”