I’m hardly the first reader to appreciate the surprising connections that can arise between writer and reader—those random references or repeated motifs dropped into a story that resonate for entirely personal reasons with the reader.
Because I’m a Dickens fan, this happens frequently to me, at the broadest level: when an author uses the term Dickensian (occasionally appropriately, more often lazily or laughably) as shorthand to denote a down-at-heels or impoverished neighborhood. (Next time I find one, I’ll note it here.)
But sometimes the reference is much more obscure. I’ve got my feet up on the couch, contentedly zipping through Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville, when the teen-aged protagonist obsesses on a line from Look Homeward, Angel: “A stone, a leaf, an unfound door.” A novel I also read on my own as a teen.
Clearly I’m not the only person—besides Beard and her heroine—who read Thomas Wolfe when I was much too young to understand him. But then again, I’m sure that for a number of readers, this reference went by as white noise. (As other references have, of course, blipped by for me.) But when that connection is made, quietly, between me and the pages of a book—it’s a reading bonus: the sense that I’m in on something with the author.
Such a thing just happened in Case Histories, as Jackson thinks about his ex-wife.
Jackson wondered if he was capable of killing Josie. He was better placed than most people—he knew all kinds of ways to do, it wasn’t doing it that was the problem, not being found out, that was the thing. He wouldn’t wait around for hours with an ax sitting in his lap. What was that Lizzie Borden rhyme? “Lizzie Borden took an ax, gave her mother forty whacks.”
Again—I’m hardly alone in getting the Lizzie Borden reference. But I also happen to be a Fall River native, who many, many times (as child and adult) endured the complete tour of the Fall River Historical Society just to get to the Lizzie exhibit: cases with the blood-spattered bedspread, a lock of Mrs. Borden’s hair, photos of the corpses. I’ve read a number of books about the crimes (starting as a kid, for a book report) and have often paused to take a good hard look at Maplecroft (where Lizzie lived after being acquitted). I’ve even attempted to explain the murders’ fascination to a Chinese exchange student. Last year, my daughters and I finally ventured to the house (now a B&B) for a tour and visited the graves in Oak Grove Cemetery.
So Jackson thinking about forty whacks? A special bonus.