Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Classics of Negativity: A Contemporary Review of The Tragedy of Brinkwater (1887), by Martha Livingston Moodey

It's going back to 1887, but the negativity in this review still reverberates!  Mystery writers out there who read this blog, how would you respond to this kind of notice?  Not that you would get such, of course!

If “The Tragedy of Brinkwater” is a novel, then it is time for the great writers of fiction to discover some other name for their class of works. This story aims at sensationalism, but utterly fails. It prolongs the agony, and finally lugs in the denouement in a most inartistic and thoroughly unnatural fashion. In interest it is hardly up to the requirements of a “penny dreadful” or “dime novel,” and why it was ever written or, having been written, why it was ever published, is a mystery. It tries to win a place on the shelves of the Sunday-school library by inserting sops to Cerberus in the form of little crumbs of goody-goody, but the repulsive nature of what we suppose must be looked upon as its plot should forever exclude it therefrom, while that attempt at mawkish fiction effectually shuts the door on its being palatable to the tastes of those in whose eyes blood and thunder and iniquity form the sole ingredient of a tale in modern times.

The Churchman, 4 June 1887
The author of The Tragedy of Brinkwater  was Martha Livingston (Howland) Moodey.  The daughter of Dr. John W. Howland, she married Dr. John W. Moodey (1816-1867).  The couple lived in Greensburg, Indiana and had several children.  Dr. Moodey was a leading local citizen and prominent Republican.  After his death, Martha Moodey moved with a son to New York City.  
The History of Decatur County, Indiana reports that Martha Moodey was "an authoress of note, an entertaining conversationalist and a dignified and beautiful woman."  So presumably she resisted any urge that might have come to her to throw The Tragedy of Brinkwater at the Churchman reviewer's head.
The New York Times explains that in Brinkwater Joseph Farrell, "who has come between his stepmother, Mrs. Agnes Farrell, and Ernest, her son," is found "murdered in bed, chloroformed and jugular vein severed."  
Although the reviewer in The New York Times, unlike the Churchman reviewer, at least deigns to tell readers something of the novel's plot, this person did not express much enthusiasm for the tale either, to put it mildly:
Nothing clears up the story like "a deathbed confession."  If you want to find out who was the murderer, and the motives for the crime, you can turn over to that especial chapter. 
And, if you can believe it, the reviewer proceeds to announce who the murderer was!  Nothing says contempt for a mystery writer more than that.
Martha Moodey wrote two other novels besides Brinkwater, Alan Thorne (1889) and The Little Millionaire (1891).  Neither sounds like a mystery or sensation novel.  Small wonder!


  1. "[S]ops to Cerebus in the form of little crumbs of goody-goody". Damn, I wish I'd written that. I may have to swipe that great picture of Joaquin Phoenix for my own crabby reviews, just to warn people in advance. What a great find; thanks for bringing this review to us.

  2. Yes, "little crumbs of goody-goody" won't leave my mind any time soon either. And nothing expresses haughty disdain better than that JP pic, I think!