Toward the end of “See What I Have Done,” Sarah Schmidt’s intense debut novel about the Lizzie Borden murder case, one of the characters says to Lizzie’s older sister, “This house is no good, Miss Emma. It’s all sick and horror.”

Some sensitive readers might apply that observation to the book itself. But “See What I Have Done” is, in fact, “good,” at least in a literary sense. If it is filled with more than its fair share of nastiness and terror, it also occasionally reveals moments of bruised tenderness and pitiful insight.

What happened at 92 Second St. in Fall River, Massachusetts on Aug. 4, 1892 has been immortalized in doggerel familiar to generations of schoolchildren:

Lizzie Borden took an ax

Gave her mother 40 whacks.

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father 41.

Sarah Schmidt Photo courtesy of Curtis Brown Co.

What the poem doesn’t recognize, however, is that Lizzie was actually acquitted of the murders of her father, elderly banker and developer Andrew Borden, and his second wife, Abby. Since then, many detectives, amateur and otherwise, have asked whether Lizzie eluded justice or whether someone else committed the crimes and completely got away with them.

“See What I Have Done” approaches those questions from at least four different angles. Each chapter of the novel is narrated in the first person by someone inhabiting or visiting the Borden house that fateful day.

The book opens from Lizzie’s perspective: fragmentary, scattered, unreliable as she attempts to make sense of her father sprawled on the sitting room sofa, his face badly “cut.” It doesn’t seem to occur to her to look for her stepmother, who lies dead upstairs.

The older Borden daughter, Emma, eventually returns from her vacation stay in a nearby town to discover the bloody chaos that has erupted in her home. She projects a calmer, though still grief-stricken, demeanor as she deals with Lizzie, the local police and a sedative-wielding physician.

Perhaps the most objective view of the household is held by Bridget, the Irish maid. She sees her employers and their behavior with a clarity none of them can muster on their own. Even she, however, harbors secrets that threaten the Borden family’s tenuous stability.

The narrative’s wild card is a dangerous, violent stranger called Benjamin, a figure not found in the historical record of the case. In Schmidt’s version, John Morse, the Borden sisters’ maternal uncle, makes Benjamin’s acquaintance and hires him to “talk some sense” into Andrew Borden, wanting him to “reconsider where he’s spending his money.” Benjamin winds up hiding in the Borden house and surreptitiously witnessing a disturbing encounter between Lizzie and Abby.

Schmidt, who is from Australia, does an excellent job of finding a unique voice for each viewpoint character and of structuring the narrative so that crucial scenes can be replayed and re-imagined. Andrew Borden is a petty tyrant, frugal to the point of irrationality, brooking no dissent from his wife or his still-unmarried daughters.

The memory of Sarah, who was Lizzie and Emma’s dead biological mother, haunts the girls, especially Lizzie, who still calls her stepmother “Mrs. Borden” after living in the same house with her for 26 years.

Emma and Lizzie blame each other for their inability to find lives for themselves outside of 92 Second St. and for the ways in which their father plays favorites.

Readers will find themselves eager to know not only who committed the killings but why. Each inhabitant of the household displays potentially murderous motives.

When Andrew cold-bloodedly hacks off the heads of Lizzie’s prized pigeons, does he unwittingly seal his own doom? Could Bridget have attacked Abby because the older woman stole the tin containing her life savings, earmarked for passage back to the Emerald Isle?

“See What I Have Done” is not an Agatha Christie whodunnit, where the suspects are gathered together so that blame can be assigned through deductive reasoning. Rather, it’s reminiscent of the work of British crime novelist Ruth Rendell, writing within her darker Barbara Vine persona.

Ambiguity and misdirection are the orders of the day, and even Benjamin’s account of Lizzie’s trial seems perfunctory and incomplete.

“See What I Have Done” can be challenging for readers with weak stomachs. In her scene setting, Schmidt spends a lot of time focused on earthy details. Even before the murders, most of the objects in the Borden house seem to be infused with terrible smells and disgusting stains.

Various members of the household suffer from what might be food poisoning, and vomit is left to molder beneath furniture. Of course, once the killings occur, there’s a whole new level of stinks and unhygienic horrors.

It’s unlikely that the Borden case will ever be “solved” at this late date, but Schmidt makes a case in “See What I Have Done” that feels truthful in its emotional intensity. Even before murder occurred within its walls, the Borden house was haunted by regret, jealousy and rage.

Powerful, eerie and insightful, “See What I Have Done” sheds a different light on what once seemed an open-and-shut case.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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