THE BLACK WIDOW: HOW ONE WOMAN GOT JUSTICE FOR HER MURDERED BROTHER LEE-ANNE CARTIER (PENGUIN, $ 38)
For all our horrified fascination with true crime stories – Bain, Watson, Pora of recent memory – few have had more of a grisly hold on our attention than the story of the Black Widow, Helen Milner, who poisoned her husband, Philip Nisbet, and would have got away with it, too, if not for Nisbet’s meddling kid sister, Lee-anne Cartier, the author of this book.
A large part of the fascination stemmed from the fact that Milner, as Cartier describes her, appeared to be a “boring ordinary person who didn’t stand out in any way”. Except that she was a prodigious and incompetent liar who poured forth so many untruths there was no way she would have been able to keep them consistent.
There is real suspense when Cartier, staying with her widowed sister-in-law, works out that Milner did it, but continues to stay there because she doesn’t want to arouse any suspicion that she’s rumbled the truth.
The language of the book is raw – not much has been done to tidy it up. You’re very aware that this is a victim’s sister trying to get justice for her brother in the face, certainly at the start, of condescension from the police.
Consequently, although the book benefits from a sense of immediacy and emotional impact, it is also full of extraneous detail, such as “Mum and Dad were staying on in New Zealand for a few more weeks, so I borrowed their car till mine was fixed.”
In fact, if you removed
all the extraneous detail, this would be a very thin book. Nevertheless, what we have is a portrait not just of a particularly malevolent criminal but also of a large family shredded to bits under so much stress.