Jessica Gregson’s debut novel, The Angel Makers, is one of those novels that will make a reader question his feelings about crimes committed by otherwise admirable people. Is a murder committed with good intentions any less a crime than a murder committed in the midst of rage or lust? Would a good person allow other innocent lives to be taken simply because she does not want to be exposed as an earlier murderess of bad people? Jessica Gregson will have you trying to decide the answers.
The Angel Makers is based upon a series of murders that occurred in Nagyrev, Hungary, over a 15-year period that began during World War I. It is believed that at least 45 people were poisoned in the village during those years; some say the real number is closer to 300. What is not in dispute is that the ringleaders, and source of the arsenic used to kill all of the victims, were the village midwife and her young assistant. These two women, under fictional names, are the central characters of The Angel Makers.
One’s initial reaction might be to wonder how a crime of this proportion, one involving so many people, could have remained undiscovered for more than a decade. Gregson’s description of the utter remoteness of life in rural Hungary during this period, and of the type of self-contained, closed society that developed there, makes it seem very possible – if not probable – that such killers could get away with their crimes for a very long time. Even a series of crimes like this one, crimes that claimed the lives of multiple husbands, elderly parents, lovers, and sons, could remain a dark, self-contained secret when so many women had so much to lose if their crimes were exposed.
So, what triggered the murders? Simply put, when Italian prisoners of war were housed near the village, the women caught a glimpse of a life much different from the one they had been living with their husbands prior to the beginning of World War I. With their own husbands away fighting the war, and a war from which they might never return, at that, it was too easy for the women to form relationships with the Italians for whom they were paid to cook, clean, and wash. Because security at the makeshift prison was almost nonexistent, soon enough most of the village women had taken Italian lovers whom they preferred over their husbands. When those husbands began to return from the front, the women had a choice to make. Many were quick to choose their Italian lovers and the new lifestyle they had come to enjoy.
Is the murder of a man justified if it saves his wife from years of physical abuse or saves the life of the unborn child carried by that woman? You decide. The bigger moral question faced by the book’s two main characters involves what they did to hide their secret. Fearing exposure if they refused, the pair chose to make murder possible for other women who wanted to rid themselves of elderly parents, siblings in line for a family inheritance, or crippled husbands and sons. Was Sari (the fictional midwife assistant) a good woman or a bad woman? Did she deserve to hang – or not? Read The Angel Makers before you try to answer those questions.