Snake Eyes: Murder in a Southern Town by Bitty Martin (Rowan & Littlefield 2022) is a straightforward and classic example of true crime that focuses on a little-known case, beginning in 1960s Arkansas, and the complex people and events that led to its resolution years later.
Martin’s book begins with the sudden and shocking death of a 13-year-old girl. Cathie Ward was found dead at Blacksnake Ranch in 1966 after travelling there to horseback ride. Frank Davis, who owned the ranch at the time and was one of the first to encounter Cathie’s body, assured authorities that her tragic death was an accident. She was dragged to death by a horse after her foot got caught in the stirrups, he claimed. He said he wasn’t able to stop the horse in time. Tragic, but not criminal, and the case dies down to rumours and speculation, despite the fact that others in the community who knew Davis to be a skilled horseman with over four decades of experience still had questions. However, the plot of the story begins to take a turn when Frank Davis, the one witness to Cathie’s death, is later found to be the murderer of his fourth wife. In a fit of rage, Davis shoots his ex-wife, Sharron, and her mother in broad daylight outside of a local laundromat, killing Sharron, only twenty-two at the time, and injuring her mother. With these violent crimes, other elements of Frank Davis’s life begin to unravel and Snake Eyes recounts this trajectory.
This book paints a picture of a unique American town that sets up the backdrop for all of the events of this case. The author’s personal connection to Hot Springs and Arkansas makes for a compelling in-road to some of the key locations and characters in this story and added an extra element of interest for me. Like any good true crime novel, this book frames the case around a history of Hot Springs and its many famous visitors/residents and explores where this case fits in reference to the local culture. What I liked about this book was the detailed portraits of the people involved, from Cathie’s family to those who knew Frank Davis and Sharron. Martin clearly spent a great deal of time constructing these portraits from extensive historical and archival evidence, interviews, media reports, and other materials. The details included in this book were well arranged and Martin does an excellent job of allowing all these documents (and the people behind them) to talk to each other to craft her narrative of this case.
There were a few things that did not work for me in this book. Firstly, the episodic structure of the chapters somehow felt both meandering and choppy, which made it difficult to focus on the central narrative thread. This might have been due to the necessary difficulty of juggling multiple and disparate cases/perspectives over a significant timeline, but the structure did not help to smooth out the narrative. Furthermore, true crime books that feature photographs of crime scenes and bodies always give me pause. The ethics of such an endeavour are questionable, and, given the changing focus of true crime, photos like this are in poor taste, to say the least. I felt there was no need for me to see photos of Sharron’s body; the photos did not add to the narrative or to my understanding of the case, which, in my opinion, is what makes including them especially questionable.
Nevertheless, Snake Eyes is a book of straightforward true crime, which, depending on the reader, might alternately appeal or dissuade true crime readers from picking up this book. The case is a strange one, to be sure, and Davis an obscure offender, but the crime itself didn’t strike me as anything more than a tragedy that began with the wholly unnecessary killing of a little girl. I’m not sure how this case elaborates on or adds to true crime as a genre. And then again, perhaps that isn’t the job of a book like this.
Please add Snake Eyes to your Goodreads shelf.
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About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.