Renee Mallett, The Peyton Place Murder (Non-fiction) 

Review by Erin Trahan

RENEE MALLETT, The Peyton Place Murder: The True Crime Story Behind the Novel that Shocked the Nation. Denver, CO: WildBlue Press, 2021. ISBN: 1952225612

reviewed by Erin Trahan 

Grace Metalious broke all kinds of boundaries. In her first and most notorious novel, Peyton Place (1956), she lifted the veil on the inner workings of smalltown New England through the eyes of women. Based in a fictional town that resembled her adult home of Gilmanton, New Hampshire, the story centers on a single mother and includes frank depictions of sex, wanted and unwanted. The book catapulted up the bestseller list and made Metalious a household name and a lot of money. For a few precious years she symbolized a scant slice of the American dream — housewife turned superstar. 

But none of the author’s outsize accomplishments earned her neighbors’ admiration, or even, an engaging new book iterates, her rightful place in history. Metalious, who died in Gilmanton at the age of 39, remains in a prolonged and unnecessary cultural exile. As The Peyton Place Murder: The True Crime Story Behind the Novel That Shocked the Nation points out, “Gilmanton has no monuments or plaques for Grace Metalious or Peyton Place.”

With her book, New Hampshire-based author Renee Mallett seeks to nudge Metalious back to the foreground. In doing so, she joins a small crew of Metalious advocates, such as scholar Ardis Cameron, acknowledged in the introduction. For her part, Mallett folds a tragic and fascinating account of a 1946 Gilmanton murder in between fast-paced chapters about the author’s formative years and rise to fame. Mallett transforms new and summarized research into a fluid page-turner. In her scenes, an interrogation room becomes “a sticky miasma all the men wished to flee.”


But before Mallett gets into that overheated room, she introduces Metalious, born Marie Grace De Repentigny into a “close-knit French Canadian immigrant family in Manchester, New Hampshire.” Despite poverty, Mallett notes that Metalious’ mother, Laurette De Repentigny, refused mill work, spoke in American accented English, and lived as far from the section of town known as “Petit Canada” as she could afford. Meanwhile, Laurette’s mother spoke only French and helped take care of Grace and her sister.


The extent to which this cultural avoidance influenced Metalious is left to speculation. Mallett boils Laurette down to a woman who deployed hyperbole if not outright lies (she claimed her father was a French Count) in support of her primary interest, “upwards [sic] mobility.” (The book could’ve benefited from a thorough copyedit.) Yet one gathers that no matter her lineage, Laurette would’ve renounced it for greener grass. Meanwhile, Metalious inherited her mother’s flair for embellishment (she hammily claimed Grace Marie Antoinette Jeanne d’Arc de Repentigny as her birth name) but seemed more taken by spectacle than status. What stands out in Mallett’s account is that both women elevated ties to France, presumably for its cachet, while omitting any hint of Canada. 


Peyton Place itself doesn’t reveal much more about Metalious’ relationship to her immigrant identity. At times the story broadly acknowledges the significance of ancestry (noting, for example, that abuser Lucas Cross “came from here” and thought it a stupid question) and zeroes in on Tom Makris as “a goddamned Greek…and a lousy millworker at that.” When Makris arrives “from away” to take the high school principal job, the townspeople wonder, “Isn’t it enough that we’ve got a whole colony of Polacks and Canucks?” Under Metalious’ attentive eye, acrimony for outsiders commingles with displaced employment. Of course, outsiders also offer a taste of forbidden fruit. The omniscient narrator revels over Makris’ dark skin, black hair, and “muscles that seemed to quiver every time he moved.” He later marries one of the main characters, Constance MacKenzie, and becomes a main character himself.


Selena Cross, the fictional young woman whose story Metalious pulled from the true crime that Mallett recounts, also receives praise in Peyton Place for her long dark hair, dark eyes, and “honey-tan” skin, which “never faded to sallowness.” Is she an ethnic outsider? We don’t exactly know. But unlike Makris her beauty and work ethic earn the sympathy of townspeople, and thus their forgiveness. Mallett explains how a similar dynamic played out in the real-life “sheep pen murder,” where young Barbara Roberts shot her abusive father, then, with her brother’s help, buried his body in the soft earth under the sheep pen. “To the experienced officers Barbara didn’t look like a killer,” writes Mallett. “She was poised carefully like a model, with her ankles crossed, and wearing the black dress that both made her seem older and younger than her twenty years.” 


Though Mallett criticizes news outlets for incessantly playing on Roberts’ looks, she uses the same narrative device to expose the hypocrisy of the supposedly “good victim.” Because while descriptions of Roberts’ outfits made for sensational, saleable news, those stories also glossed over the grim reality of her father’s sexual abuse. Mallett includes how journalist Ben Bradlee (of later Watergate fame) helped bring transparency to the proceedings and likely swayed public opinion in Roberts’ favor. Likewise keen to expose double standards, Metalious follows suit with the Selena Cross story. Cross murders her habitually abusive stepfather (the publisher required the change to stepfather) then seeks out Dr. Matthew Swain, the one person everyone in Peyton Place trusts, to perform her illegal abortion. Later, Swain’s testimony frees Cross from a murder sentence.


By devoting the bulk of her book to the unfolding events of the Roberts’ family tragedy, Mallett satisfies contemporary demand for true crime while also pointing out yet another way Metalious was ahead of her time. For example, neither Mallett nor Metalious trade on dead young female bodies like a slew of true crime docuseries and podcasts available right this minute. With Roberts and Cross, they instead paint far more complicated pictures of the muddled line between victim and perpetrator. In addition, Mallett contrasts Metalious’ forthrightness about drawing on the Roberts’ murder to Vladimir Nabokov’s denial of basing Lolita, published a year before Peyton Place, on a true crime. “Grace mentioned the crime several times in interviews,” writes Mallett, “almost as a defense for the book.” Mallett appreciates that Metalious did not try to willfully obscure the real people affected. 


Like the author she admires, Mallett has a knack for rooting the facts of a place within its highest dramas. In the introduction, she immediately endears herself by describing how she embarked on this story during the first year of the pandemic. It’s a sunny New Hampshire day. She’s on a solo road trip to take pictures at a cemetery for another book, hair pulled into a ponytail just like Metalious. Mallett has written or contributed to more than a dozen books about the lost, wicked, and ghostly legends of New England. It’s neither wholly academic nor a literary endeavor. But she pours her heart into the “offbeat but agreeable” work. Even still, she laments, it “leaves a girl more than just a little jaded.”


Like so many creative people, Mallett has seemingly juggled the desire to do what feels meaningful within the confines of paying bills, parenting, and scrambling together enough quiet time to focus. These details come through in her conversational, confidantes-having-coffee tone. Her website indicates she has many other irons on the fire – beekeeper, art studio founder, developer of beauty products, and independent bookseller. With this attempt to keep a pivotal figure in American history on the radar, she shoulders a significant amount of effort, and thus risk, with no institutional backing. Along the way, she finds herself grappling with the same ghosts her forbearer faced. 


As she concludes the book she compares Metalious to New England’s other literary doyennes —Shirley Jackson and Sylvia Plath— likewise trapped, though to a lesser extent, under moldy ideas of implied respectability. Underlying Mallett’s quest is a nagging and deeply relatable question: If Grace Metalious could not carve out a lasting legacy, then where does that leave the rest of us? Where does it leave me?