Blackmail, Sex and Lies is a story of deception, scandal, and fractured traditional Victorian social values. It is the tale of a naïve, young woman caught up in a whirlwind romance with a much older man. However, both have personality flaws that result in poor choices, and ultimately lead to a tragic end.
For 160 years, people have believed Madeleine Smith to have been guilty of murder. But was she? Could she have been innocent after all?
This Victorian murder mystery, based on a true story, takes place in Glasgow, Scotland, 1857. It explores the disastrous romance between the vivacious socialite, Madeleine Hamilton Smith, and her working class lover, Pierre Emile L’Angelier.
After a two-year torrid, and forbidden relationship with L’Angelier, that takes place against her parents’ wishes, the situation changes dramatically when William Minnoch enters the scene. This new man in Madeleine’s life is handsome, rich, and of her social class. He is also a man of whom her family approve.
Sadly, insane jealous rages, and threats of blackmail, are suddenly silenced by an untimely death.
Blackmail, Sex and Lies is a fascinating read with its mix of fact and fiction. Set in Victorian England where society is very much class and gender based, Kathryn McMaster uses the letters sent between Emilie L’Angelier and Madeleine Smith, and details of the court case as the centre for the fictionalised story of the two lovers. The love letters, are certainly damning for Madeleine, and the implication is that their content was worth killing for. It certainly becomes apparent that Emilie kept the letters to use against Madeleine at some point. Over three years, through their correspondence we see the love affair blossom and then die, literally; with the death of Emilie.
As characters, neither Madeleine nor Emile come out well, although for me I felt more sympathetic to Madeleine’s story. Emilie is a man who does across as vain and a social climber and unscrupulous in his pursuit of what he wants. Considering the times I also feel he is lightly delusional as he cannot understand why Madeleine’s father, a prominent architect, does not think Emilie is good enough for his daughter. From the start his ill health is apparent, he has episodes of stomach pain and sickness, even before he met Madeleine. The reader is let wandering if, in the hindsight of our times, this is caused by his use of arsenic for his complexion and health.
Madeleine led a very sheltered life and for me she came across as very naive. Emilie is the first man she has had any real contact with and is obviously flattered by the attention he gives her. Women did not have any rights in nineteenth century Scotland, they were legally under the protection of either their father or their husband. Madeleine had to do as her father demanded, but she also felt an obligation to Emilie, whom she referred to as her husband. Her naivety in putting her feeling in the love letters, and trusting Emilie to destroy them, was her down fall. The implication that their content was worth killing for stayed with her the rest of her life. It certainly becomes apparent that Emilie kept the letters to use against Madeleine at some point, they were damning in their content and ruined Madeleine’s reputation, and eventually her life.
Kathryn McMaster puts all the facts in front of the reader and the and leaves it up to you to decide if you thought Madeleine was guilty of murder or if Emilie poisoned himself over the years. This is a well written un biased account of a tragic love story, that ended in a death and a reputation ruined for life of both protagonists. This is a fascinating, well researched, read that may leave you with more questions than answers.