The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, by Corinne May Botz
Due to a combination of factors—mainly that we’ve reached a point where my library can, in no way, be effectively run with only one full-time employee, but okay, if I’m being entirely honest, than yes, also the launch of the Criterion Channel—I haven’t read an entire new-to-me book in something like two months? Which has led to a horrid cycle of feeling failure-y and exhausted and guilty and all the bad things.
But! Our annual Town Meeting was last week, and our budget request—which included enough of a bump to add another employee—was voted in (THANKS TO ALL THE LIBRARY PATRONS WHO SHOWED UP OMG LOCAL ELECTIONS ARE SO IMPORTANT ALWAYS VOTE VOTE VOTE EVEN WHEN THERE ISN’T ANYTHING “BIG” ON THE BALLOT THANK YOU FOR COMING TO MY TED TALK) and suddenly, lo and behold, this weekend I actually READ A BOOK.
And hoo boy, what a book it is.
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death is not remotely text-heavy—it’s mainly comprised of Corinne May Botz’s photos of Frances Glessner Lee’s Nutshell Studies—but it takes time to re-acclimate, right? Maybe?
Anyway, if you’re not familiar with the Nutshell Studies, they’re obsessively-detailed miniature crime scenes created in the 1940s and ‘50s as forensic teaching aids.
If you’re at all interested in true crime, take a look. If you have a soft spot for dollhouse stuff, take a look. If you love learning about lesser-known ladies who vaulted barriers—I’d say that Frances Glessner Lee vaulted the barrier, rather than tore it down, because based on what I’ve read she didn’t seem particularly interested in bringing other women along with her into the boys’ club that was the justice system—take a look.
Richard B. Woodward’s Introduction is decidedly Fine, but Corinne May Botz’s biographical essay about Lee is excellent. Botz puts Lee’s life and work into the context of her time and her upbringing, her gender and her economic class. She’s clearly fascinated and enthralled by Lee as a person and as an artist, but there’s no hero-worship there—she’s particularly upfront about Lee’s ingrained classism:
As a product of her snobbish, well-mannered, patriarchal upbringing, Lee considered herself above the “immoral” crimes she reproduced. (36)
I have to return it to the library soon, but I know I’m going to want to go through it again and again and again… so time to add it it my BUY list.
Also! There’s a new book about the Nutshell Studies coming out next year! 18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics, by Bruce Goldfarb, is due out in February. So I’ll be on the lookout for that. (ETA: I’m glad that I’m already vaguely irritated by the subtitle, because her story isn’t UNTOLD! It actually HAS been told, multiple times! Good lord, just Google her name and see all the times it’s been told. Not a household name =/= untold, BAH.)