I would be grateful to Weinman if the only thing she ever did was put together the Women Crime Writers of the 40s and 50s box set, which is now the backbone of my crime fiction course. It is an essential body of work that only scratches the surface of the best American crime writing of the mid-20th century. But with this book she takes a dive into a fascinating mystery that was deeply compelling.
This book though hits an impossibly sweet spot between true crime and literary analysis. Most folks will be drawn in by the true crime aspect, but they’ll get a forensic examination of Nabokov’s development of the novel—and the debt he owed to the story of poor Sally Horner. If you know the story of Lolita at all, you can guess the sad fate that befalls this girl. And it’s as gripping as a novel: I flew though the book in a day or two. Weinman writes in tight prose with an abundance of sympathy and imagination. The latter is necessary because there are still a lot of holes in the known facts.
Weinman really dug deep though! She doggedly pursued the trail, interviewing survivors of the time and poring over public records to trace the trail of Sally and the paedophile Frank La Salle. It’s heartbreaking to see how Sally was let down by everyone who assumed the word of an adult white male ought never be questioned—and worse that she does not long survive her liberation.
I’ve seen some reviews that are disappointed that everything is not tied up in a neat bow. This is life in all its messy contradictions and misrememberings. Weinman careful questions the memories of interviewees who insist things that cannot possibly be, next to vivid memories of what was. Like Nabokov, who clearly takes inspiration from Sally’s ordeal yet attempts to deny it, perhaps we resist touching too closely on a story that wrenches so deeply.