Book Review: Agnes, Murderess by Sarah Leavitt

Agnes, Murderess – Sarah Leavitt (Freehand, 2019)

This graphic novel explores the story of Agnes McVee, an elusive story of a woman who kept a boarding house in the Cariboo and allegedly killed more than fifty people. Historical evidence for her existence in scant but a legend has grown up around the story of this woman. To be honest, I’ve lived most of my life in British Columbia, where she is said to have lived, and never heard of this story. In fairness, I’ve spent little time in the Cariboo region and we barely studied BC history in school.

Leavitt’s is an imaginative re-telling, based loosely on the facts available. (And whether or not those are even facts are up for debate.) The story begins in a remote region of Scotland, where Agnes is a child, effectively imprisoned with her grandmother after her mother’s death. Her grandmother, called Gormul, is known locally as a witch and interacts very little with the nearby villagers. A violent act leads Agnes to finally escape to London, along with Seamus, her only childhood friend. Already we see violence growing in Agnes, even while she tries to fight it.

In London, Agnes is haunted by her grandmother’s voice and is inspired to move to Canada, a land said to be free of ghosts. Further violence precedes her and Seamus’ departure to the New World. In Canada, Agnes is driven to find greater isolation, greater separation from her fellow humans. This is goldrush-era British Columbia. It’s dirty and rough and women are scarce. Despite her desire for solitude she ends up running a boarding house and brothel at 108 Mile. Her thirst for gold and treasure and her growing penchant for violence soon have her teaming up with Seamus and one other man to murder the boarders who come her way.

The story is simply told and Leavitt does a fine job of showing Agnes’ progression from an isolated, lonely child to a violent, relentless serial killer. Is she overcome by her grandmother’s influence, witchcraft flowing through her veins? Or is she a confused and angry young woman who turns easily to violence to solve her problems?

The illustrations likewise are simple but there are some truly creepy images. The pictures are all black and white and shadow is used to create an eery feeling as we follow Agnes. There is as sense that she is never truly alone, even as she pushes deeper into an uncharted land. It’s definitely a creepy story.

Where I felt a lack was in the the transition to the serial murders. Agnes is established as greedy and violent and generally uncaring about other people. But she so easily stumbles into a serial killer set-up with two other people. Seamus in particular is shown to be far more sensitive and empathetic to other people and yet, without explanation, he is suddenly fine with killing multiple men for money. Not to mention that there are a few other characters aware of what’s happening and they just…don’t care. Am I naive to believe that a group of people randomly thrown together wouldn’t all be so enthusiastic about murder?

The conclusion also seems to come too quickly although it definitely has tension as it builds to the end. Overall, I enjoyed this graphic delve into my province’s history and I’m looking forward to hearing more from Leavitt as one of the featured authors at our local Writers Fest this summer.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Agnes, Murderess by Sarah Leavitt”

    1. It’s pretty cool. The artwork seems really simple at first but conveys a lot. I haven’t read many graphic novels so this was definitely something unique for me.

  1. But did she cut the bodies up and make them into pies? Sounds a lot like Sweeney Todd, and I now realise I don’t know if it’s supposed to be based on a true story either. It mus have been a risky business travelling back in the days when you couldn’t easily let someone know where you’d be at any particular point in time…

    1. It sounds like she also took advantage of the fact that these men were so far from home that no one knew where they were supposed to be and it was normal for months to go by without hearing from them and so their disappearances went unnoticed.

  2. “Naive” sounds like a harsh word, but for as much as people are obsessed with true-crime murder books and TV shows, you may be too sweet for this world, yes — AND THAT IS PERFECTLY FINE.

    I read and loved Sarah Leavitt’s memoir, Tangles. It’s about her mother’s rapid decline into dementia, and I enjoyed the way Leavitt depicted the tough situation, its nuances, and even her personal “warts.” Here is my review, if you are interested:

    1. If I never can understand the mind of a murderer, then so be it! This story is interesting because no one really knows if it’s true or not. It probably is based on fact, or at least in the possibility of such a thing have occurred.

      That’s cool that you’ve read Leavitt before. Tangles sounds very different than this one. She’ll be a featured author at the writers festival here this summer and I think she’ll be an interesting one to hear.

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