BOOK REVIEW: American Mother by Gregg Olsen

Title: American Mother: The True Story of a Troubled Family, Motherhood, and the Cyanide Murders that Shook the World

Author: Gregg Olsen

Audiobook Length: 14 hours and 7 minutes. Book length: 496 pages

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Nonfiction, True Crime

Read Start Date: November 10, 2022

Read Finish Date: November 14, 2022

Brief Summary of the Plot from Goodreads: At 5.02 pm on June 5, 1986, an emergency call came into the local sheriff’s office in the small town of Auburn, Washington State. A distressed housewife, Stella Nickell, said her husband Bruce was having a seizure. Officers rushed to the Nickell’s mobile home, to find Stella standing frozen at the door… Bruce was on the floor fighting for his life.  
 
As Stella became the beneficiary of over $175,000 in a life insurance pay-out, forensics discovered that Bruce had consumed painkillers laced with cyanide.
 
A week later, fifteen-year-old Hayley was getting ready for another school day. Her mom, Sue, called out ‘I love you’ before heading into the bathroom and moments later collapsed on the floor. Sue never regained consciousness, and the autopsy revealed she had been poisoned by cyanide tainted headache pills. Just like Bruce.
 
While a daughter grieved the sudden and devastating loss of her mother, a young woman, Cindy, was thinking about her own mom Stella. She thought about the years of neglect and abuse, the tangled web of secrets Stella had shared with her, and Cindy contemplated turning her mom into the FBI…
 
Gripping and heart-breaking, Gregg Olsen uncovers the shocking true story of a troubled family. He delves into a complex mother-daughter relationship rooted in mistrust and deception, and the journey of the sweet curly-haired little girl from Oregon whose fierce ambition to live the American Dream led her to make the ultimate betrayal.    
 
Originally published as Bitter Almonds. Revised and updated edition.

My Review: I received this book as an audiobook and ebook from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. With respect to the different formats:

Audiobook: The audiobook was great. I also really liked the interview with the author that was included in the end.

Ebook: The ebook was also great. It was easy to read and it was organized well.

With respect to the story itself, American Mother is the true crime story of a woman, Stella Nickell, who murdered her husband Bruce by giving him Excedrin capsules filled with cyanide. The medical examiner initially stated that the cause of death was emphysema. Stella was free and clear of the murder — that is — until she became greedy. You see, if the death was accidental, then Stella would get a bigger payout from the life insurance.

Sickly inspired by the “tylenol murders”, which was a series of poisoning deaths resulting from drug tampering in the Chicago metropolitan area in 1982, Stella formulated a plan: she would contaminate Excedrin bottles with cyanide filled capsules and put them on the shelves at drug stores. Then, when someone else took them and died, it would be seen as another “drug tampering” case, and Bruce’s death would be ruled an accident. This plot is sick and twisted, and Stella almost got away with it. Who would think that someone would be so callous as to murder complete strangers to cover up the murder of her husband?

A short while after Stella put the bottles on the shelves, a woman named Sue took those cyanide pills and died. This time the medical examiner found the cyanide in her system. After Sue’s death hit the news, Stella started calling authorities stating her belief that her husband had also taken contaminated pills. It was found to be true.

Essentially, what it boils down to, is that Stella murdered Sue so that Bruce’s death would be ruled an accident and Stella could get more money. What a heartless piece of garbage!

Gregg Olsen tells the story of not only the murder and the victim, Sue, but also the background on the Nickell family. While I’m not a big fan of focusing on the killer (because the focus should be on the victim instead), it was important to see Stella’s family dynamics, as there was some speculation, although never proven, that Stella’s daughter was in on the plot as well.

I really like how Olsen told the story — it wasn’t dry like some true crime books, and it held my interest. There was some repetition of the facts when Olsen wrote about the trial (and honestly this was my least favorite part), but on the other hand it really drove home the point that Stella was a heartless monster who killed 2 people for the money.

If you like true crime, I would definitely recommend this book.

Reviews Published
Professional Reader
10 Book Reviews

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

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