Not the first and probably not the last probing into the true case of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett in 1861), America's first serial killer, but a masterful study of his innocent wife, Georgiana, and of a time long past.
Debut novelist Nickels has wisely chosen to focus not on Holmes himself but on his third wife, Georgiana Yoke. Georgiana (1869-1945) is a mixture of the adventurous and enlightened and the naïve; she leaves her teaching job in Indiana to stay with her uncle in Chicago, the plan being to see this wonderful coming world’s fair and to see what the next stage in her life will be. It’s not long before she is wooed and won by Dr. Holmes. Holmes, whom Erik Larson wrote about in Devil in the White City (2003), is the classic psychopath, utterly charming and able to explain away…well, anything which might strike one as shady. Georgiana is hopelessly smitten and fiercely loyal. Holmes, a con man and bigamist, very likely had a genius IQ. He was always on the go, needed very little sleep, and always had his hand in one scheme or another. He protested his love for Georgiana and treated her royally. And he always had plausible explanations for his dodgy doings, his frequent absences. Finally, things began to catch up with him. He was arrested in Boston, and the more the police dug, the more appalling things they unearthed. Holmes was convicted of four murders and went to the gallows—with unnerving aplomb—at the age of 34. Nickels writes very well and researches thoroughly. We get a feel for the life of a shopgirl in a big Chicago department store and of a girl in small-town Indiana—and the different but equally stifling mores of each place. The portrait of Georgiana is wonderfully fleshed out. She is naïve but does not realize how much so. Her loyalty to Holmes is both touching and painful for the reader. She is shunned by the townsfolk and badgered by the press. This comes to a head when she finally has to face the truth and confront the monster in court.
A portrait sensitively and well-limned; hopefully we will have more from Nickels.
I run tours of Holmes locations in Chicago, I've been a talking head on a number of Holmes TV documentaries, and I write about him frequently. Believe me when I tell you that most Holmes books are very badly researched; even most of the high-profile ones rely much more on tabloids and pulps than any primary data. Judith Nickels "A Competent Witness" is a novel not about Holmes, but his last wife - and it's among the best researched Holmes books on the market. Far better than most of the nonfiction accounts, really. Judith really rolled up her sleeves digging up the papers you can't get online, uncovering first hand information, and everything else that was necessary to create such a compelling portrait of Georgiana Yoke, who became the star witness at Holmes's trial. I've always loved the newspaper article that recounted what happened when Georgiana told a "castle" resident that she might go up to Wilmette to meet Holmes' other wife, and I'm glad to see it worked in. An interesting read about a fascinating woman.
- Adam Selzer
Author of H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil.