The Red Bird Sings: the bizarre true story of how a ghost testified in court

It’s 1897 in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, and Edward “Trout” Shue is on trial for the murder of his wife Zona. This much we glean from the opening pages of Aoifa Fitzpatrick’s debut novel, as recounted in the form of  a piece of dogged reporting by the victim’s aspiring journalist friend, Lucy Frye.

But the real draw of this Southern Gothic melodrama – which, remarkably, is based on a true story – is that Zona was assumed to have died of natural causes until Mary Jane Heaster claimed that her daughter’s ghost had visited her and revealed the truth about her untimely death. Mrs Heaster even went on to testify, eerily channelling Zona’s spirit.

The ghost at the trial? It promises an irresistible combination of courtroom drama, murder mystery and supernatural chills: Law & Order & Haunting, Phantom Witness for the Prosecution, Twelve Angry Men and Casper. Unsurprisingly, the “Greenbrier Ghost” – as Zona’s spectre came to be known – has already featured in books, theatrical adaptations (including two musicals), and the American TV comedy series Drunk History.

Perhaps mindful that she’s entering a crowded field, Fitzpatrick adds multiple layers to her telling. There are regular narrative interruptions from not just Lucy’s crime reporting, but also letters that Zona has written to her illegitimate daughter, Elisabeth, who was adopted at birth (unfortunately full of syrupy musings on what love really is), while the third-person narration switches between Lucy and Mary Jane.

Fitzpatrick also sketches in a large cast of characters, principally: the unwed Lucy, that familiar female historical rebel, who scandalises her mother and well-to-do stepfather by cycling around the neighbourhood gathering stories; Mary Jane, resentful of her vivid daughter, and even more so of her exasperating failed-inventor husband, Jacob; and of course the villain of the piece, the sly, slippery, stealthily abusive Trout Shue.

That means we’re 100 pages in before we even get to Zona’s tragic death, let alone the trial itself. And much of that build-up is enjoyable: Fitzpatrick goes big on the genre’s overripe description (Zona’s “fevered eyes glazed like two figs in syrup”; a visit from Jacob’s feckless inventor friend was as welcome as “a blowfly in the larder”) and overwrought emotions, particularly during a memorably disastrous Christmas dinner that sees the decisive rupture of Zona and Lucy’s lifelong friendship.

There’s an element of the grotesque, too. Mary Jane carries what she calls her veil: a “dried morsel of birth sac, adhered to the same paper that had been used to lift it from Mary Jane’s infant face.” Lovely. And Trout really is a brilliant love-to-hate baddie, the classic abuser who manipulates and isolates Zona, but wears a mask of respectability and charm in public.

However, there are conflicting impulses in this novel. Fitzpatrick has added a feminist framing, suggesting that Mary Jane’s spiritualism is the only way in which she can speak out in a patriarchal society; it’s no coincidence that she also casts her corset aside. “A person of her sex will not be heard when she argues or pushes or demands. She must, instead, transfigure, and break herself upon the wheel of power.”

Lucy is also a transgressive figure (albeit a pretty standard riff on the plucky gal). Meanwhile, as the grim shadow of Zona’s secret birth, we hear of another girl who died while attempting an abortion. Zona’s own death is engagingly labelled an “everlasting faint” initially, and a series of smug, condescending men (some of them in Trout’s pocket – institutional corruption is a factor too) line up to dismiss Lucy and Mary Jane’s suspicions.

It’s actually a pretty believable thesis for what really happened, but it makes for frustrating storytelling. There aren’t sufficient twists to sustain the detective element led by Lucy’s investigations, nor is there enough of Mary Jane’s connection with The Other Side to really spook. The feminist takedown feels at odds with the soap-operatic plotting; the former requires at least some nuance, hard to find here when all the men are cartoonishly terrible, while the latter is most exhilarating when Fitzpatrick takes wild swings.

Inevitably, it’s the trial that thrills most, with its combative lawyers, sickening jeopardy and gasp-worthy reveals. No wonder it’s such a mainstay of drama. As for those other additions to this bizarre historical chapter? The jury’s still out.