Starvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice in the Woods of the Pacific Northwest by Gregg Olsen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A fun and thrilling dive into local lore that unfortunately fizzles out at the halfway point.
The first half of this book basically demands to be made into a horror movie (and that’s a good thing). It has all the trappings of the best horror tropes; naive, unaware victims, a scarily commanding and charismatic doctor, and then a spooky and remote location that serves as a backdrop. It’s great. Dr. Linda Hazzard operates a “sanitarium” in the backwater location of Olalla, WA, where she promotes her “fasting cure” which is really just starving people to the brink of death. Two English heiresses, Claire and Dora, are intrigued by the promise of perfect health and are lured into the doctor’s clutches and gradually weaken as the starvation takes hold. The tension builds and you feel the pressure as you try to will Claire and Dora to escape and then the desperate hope as someone attempts to intervene on their behalf. It’s an excellent story.
Unfortunately, around the middle of the book, the escape from Dr. Hazzard’s sanitarium happens and the book transitions to a courtroom drama in an attempt to stop Hazzard from inflicting her “cure” on people. This has the potential to be interest, as the case centers around the question of whether or not the deaths caused by Hazzard’s “treatments” were intentional, negligent, or the result of patients too far gone to be saved. Was she “really” starving people?
Well, we know that she was, because we just saw it happen through the proceeding action. The courtroom drama is then mostly a retread of ground that we already covered, with a few witness accounts and other details sprinkled in.
Had the story been arranged differently, perhaps with the courtroom narrative serving as the structure for the book as a whole, I might have enjoyed it more. It would have been excellent to have the reveal of Hazzard’s starvation “cure” come towards the end of the book, as opposed to in the first third. As it is, though, you’ve got half of a great campfire story and then a courtroom drama about it, which ends up making this merely a good book, instead of a great one.
Also, purely as an aside: some of the metaphors and similes here were very . . . odd. “He turned two shades closer to the color of a holly berry” as a way of describing someone getting mad is . . . well, it’s certainly unique, though not to my taste. Your mileage may vary.