Book Review: Midnight Assassin

Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America’s Heartland

By Patricia L. Bryan and Thomas Wolf

Published August 2007

University of Iowa Press

296 pp.

ISBN 1-587-29605-5

Reviewed April 22, 2008

Originally reviewed in:

The interesting thing about murder is that the longer one goes unsolved, the more interesting it gets. New evidence comes to light, new theories are propounded and the media gets more and more time to beat it into the ground. This fatalistic fascination is well served by “Midnight Assassin,” by Patricia L. Bryan and Thomas Wolf, the revisiting of an obscure murder well over a century ago.

The victim in this case was John Hossack, a well-respected farmer and landowner whose head was split open by an axe on December 1, 1900. His wife Margaret, who slept right next to him but apparently heard nothing, was immediately the prime suspect. An all-male jury and a history of domestic disputes let to her conviction, but a retrial and eventual acquittal was granted based on insufficient evidence and alternate theories.

Bryan and Wolf do not try to solve the murder, but rather perform a full reconstruction of the events. Drawing on a truly impressive body of research they reconstruct the actions of every member of the family, discussions held by neighbors and the lively arguments ofs opposing lawyers. Documents are quoted regularly: the diary of a housewife similar to Margaret gives us a picture of their hermetic lifestyle, while newspaper articles offer first-hand accounts of the trial (and some amusement at clearly biased, old-fashioned reporting).

Structurally, the book is very similar to Truman Capote’s landmark “In Cold Blood.” It begins with the last day of the victim’s life, walks through each step of the investigation, follows the accused to prison and concludes by seeing where the parties ended up. Unlike “In Cold Blood,” however, “Midnight Assassin’s” language is short and straightforward – less poetic than Capote, but in many ways better suited to the simple setting of the prairie Midwest.

Writing style is an important choice here, as “Midnight Assassin” is very focused on the circumstances surrounding the murder. Bryan and Wolf examine how the insular quality of farm life meant neighbors chose not to get involved in arguments between Margaret and John, and gender relations meant Margaret’s first trial came from “a jury of her husband’s peers.” The book doesn’t accuse anyone, but the implication is clear that culture contributed to John’s death.

The language choice certainly helps get the point across, but luminous language like Capote’s would have filled the book’s gap of no visuals. Beyond one illustration of the Hossack home there are no photographs of key players, no images of evidence or replicas of newspaper front pages. Even one or two entries would have helped readers picture the crime – particularly during the occasionally dull recounting of the trial.

It may be blank is some places, but “Midnight Assassin” is both a well-researched true crime novel and an interesting study of 18th century Midwest culture. Dead men may tell no tales, but they can certainly keep things stirred up after they’re gone.


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