reviewed by Cara DiCostanzo
“But there’s a story behind everything. How a picture got on a wall. How a scar got on your face. Sometimes the stories are simple, and sometimes they are hard and heartbreaking. But behind all your stories is always your mother’s story, because hers is where yours begin.”
― Mitch Albom, For One More Day
American Mother is a re-release of a true crime novel called Bitter Almonds, initially released 20 years ago. It is about the 1986 murders of Bruce Nickell and Sue Snow, when they unknowingly took cyanide-laced headache pain relievers. This is Gregg Olsen at his finest, a detailed, extensively researched novel about the investigation regarding the two victims, who were strangers, and the mother and daughter duo who helped plan the murders.
Stella Nickell was tired of her husband sitting at home doing nothing at all every night. After all, their marriage was based on a love of partying and drinking. So when Bruce Nickell got sober and didn’t want to go to bars, Stella got bored. So instead of asking for a divorce, she takes a trip to the local market and purchases some Excedrin and Anacin bottles, takes some capsules out to fill with foxglove seeds and cyanide from an algae killer, and puts them back on the shelf so it would seem like an epidemic of cyanide laced capsules. When Bruce reaches for some Excedrin for a headache, he dies almost instantly after ingesting the capsules. Sue Snow, a stranger to the Nickells, purchases one of those bottles of Excedrin, as she always takes four in place of caffeine each morning, and dies before she leaves the house, discovered by her young daughter Hayley.
Living a few miles from where this story took place, it surprised me I had never heard of it. Especially, being a true crime junkie. I wondered why Olsen would re-release a book that is 20 years old but he writes in his author’s note that there have been so many updates to this case over the years, including the fact that he has located the daughter, Cindy, who was hiding for years. Whether you are familiar with this crime, the author offers a fresh take, including significant updates on some of the main characters. This account describes in detail the relationship between Stella Nickell and her daughter Cynthia, and where it went wrong. The author has done such an extensive investigation and literally left no stone unturned, including interviewing key members of this tragedy.
There are many many characters in this book. A lot of them are friends and family of the Nickells. They divide into two groups; those who believe Stella Nickell is capable of murder and those who don’t. Unfortunately for Stella, her own daughter believes she is capable and turns her into the FBI. A good portion of the book is their relationship and how it crumbles. As with If You Tell, another unbelievable true-crime novel by Olsen, this story is equally difficult to believe.
Gregg Olsen writes as if he is describing the story to an old friend. I felt like I knew these characters, and despite most of them being awful, they were relatable and I cared what happened to them. He describes their homes, clothes and landscapes in such a way as if we were there. What could have been a laborious police procedural turns into a fantastic depiction of a true crime, which happened a few towns away.