North & South - - Review -

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.

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