The Curious Habits of Doctor Adams: A 1950s Murder Mystery by Jane Robins

How do you find this man – guilty or innocent?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the curious habits of dr adamsIn 1957, Dr John Adams, a general practitioner from Eastbourne, was tried for the murder of an elderly patient, ostensibly because he hoped to inherit her Rolls Royce. The investigation leading up to the trial was a press sensation, with rumours abounding that Adams had murdered as many as 300 patients. This book tells the story of the investigation and trial, and Jane Robins asks the reader to judge whether the eventual verdict was right or wrong – was Adams a mass-murderer in the mold of Harold Shipman or was he a maligned man?

After the trial the police files were sealed, but a decade ago they were re-opened following a successful Freedom of Information request. Robins has based much of the book on these files and on the record of the trial, and has also spoken to some of the children of the alleged victims. She tells us how the press reported the story, before and after the trial, and sets the book in its historical context by reminding the reader of what other events were happening around the same time as the deaths under investigation – the coronation of the Queen, the Suez crisis etc.

Eastbourne at that time was a quiet town, filled with elderly, middle-class people who still lived in a world of deference and servants. The post-war modernity that was beginning to change the urban centres hadn’t yet spread to this corner of England. The preponderance of colonels, elderly widows, wills, private nurses and inheritances could have been taken straight from the world of Agatha Christie and added to the story’s appeal for the press.

Dr John Adams
Dr John Adams

The National Health Service had been recently founded and the government was still in negotiations with general practitioners as to their status in the new set-up. Family doctors were still seen as mini-gods and of course were still directly charging their private (wealthy) patients. Adams gained the support of the British Medical Association partly as a pawn in their on-going arguments with the government and partly because an attack on any doctor was seen as an attack on all. The BMA made it clear to Adams’ Eastbourne colleagues that they should not co-operate with the investigation and they largely complied.

Adams himself was either a hard-working, caring GP who went out of his way to be available to his patients at all times of the day or night; or he was a scheming manipulative murderer who preyed on the elderly people, mainly women, who trusted him. He was either a kind man who popped in to see these often lonely people without being specifically asked; or he was an unscrupulous monster, forcing unnecessary medical treatments on people too weak and needy to refuse. He was either generous enough with his time to help these old people to manage their financial affairs; or he was an avaricious crook, using his position to force them to make him a beneficiary in their wills and then hastening their deaths to prevent them changing their minds.

Robins handles the mass of information available to her well, telling the complex story clearly and plainly. She brings the various participants to life – the police officer investigating the case, the journalists reporting on it and the various residents of Eastbourne who were either for or against Adams. The picture of Adams himself is of course crucial and Robins shows him through the eyes of both his supporters and accusers, leaving the reader to judge the truth of the man.

Jane Robins
Jane Robins

The trial itself was apparently a huge sensation, the longest murder trial that had ever been held in Britain at that time, and the description of it is fascinating. Robins shows us each witness and how they held up under the questioning of the defence team, led by noted barrister Geoffrey Lawrence. Since I didn’t know the outcome of the trial, the tension built nicely and I found myself arguing along with both prosecution and defence at different points. The judge wrote about the trial years later and this allows Robins to show us what his opinion was, not just of Adams, but also of the evidence and the conduct of the case. And finally, Robins wraps up with the aftermath of the case in terms of politics, the press and the people involved; and only then does she give us her own verdict on Adams.

All-in-all, I found this a fascinating, absorbing read. I have carefully tried to avoid spoilers since, although obviously the case and its outcome is a matter of public record, I assume there will be other people like myself who don’t know about it, in which case this can easily be read as an intriguing mystery as well as a thoroughly researched and very well told history of a true investigation. Highly recommended.

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34 thoughts on “The Curious Habits of Doctor Adams: A 1950s Murder Mystery by Jane Robins

  1. It’s fascinating to think of cases like that, where people’s perceptions can matter so much. And it is an interesting era: on the brink of the modern age, but as you put it so well, almost an Agatha-Christie-like atmosphere still. Thanks for the intriguing review.


  2. Awesome review! I particularly love the 5th paragraph! Always interesting the professor!

    It really wasn’t worth it for a Rolls Royce. Now if it was a Vette (a bright red, shiny one)… I think he’s guilty. The picture says all. I would have taken my Katana and finished it, I think.

    I am extremely curious, though… You sure you can’t divulge just a wee, tiny, little bit more–for Spitz? 🙂


  3. I knew about this case, not from direct memory but because it was referred to a lot in my youth and I was very impressed that you were able to write such a good review without giving the game away! Sounds like a good, serious account: I shall be forced to add it to the ever-growing list.


    • Did you by any chance ever read the book by the judge – I think it was called Easing the Passing? Came out in the seventies I think. I wondered if it would be interesting, or if it might be very dry and legalistic.


  4. .Yes, I did, and it was excellent, not the least bit dry. In fact it was quite controversial, a lot of legal luminaries criticised it for giving away too much about the judicial process.
    The BBC (I think) broadcast a play in the 80s ( I think) with Timothy West as Bodkin Adams. I can’t remember its title, but Google will know. I’m sure you would enjoy it.


    • Hmm… unfortunately it seems to be out of print at the moment. Maybe if this book takes off, it’ll encourage the publishers to reprint that one. I had a look to see if the Timothy West play is available, and it’s not either. Oh well.


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