Mrs Maybrick (Crime Archive Series) by Victoria Blake

mrs maybrickSmall but perfectly formed…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In 1889, Florence Maybrick was tried in Liverpool for the murder by arsenic poisoning of her husband, James. This deceptively small book tells the story of the crime and its aftermath. It’s well-laid out, with a clear linear structure divided into short chapters. Blake takes us from Florence and James’ first meeting and hasty marriage, hasty perhaps because each thought the other was a better financial catch than turned out to be the case, through their marital problems, James’ illness and death, and the legal aftermath of trial and appeals, and finishes with the story of what finally happened to Florence.

Victoria Blake is a regular visitor to the blog under her more casual name of Vicky Blake, so obviously you will have to assume that there may be some bias in my review. But I shall try to be as honest as I can – not difficult, since I thoroughly enjoyed this little book, finding it both interesting and well presented.

While these old murder cases are often interesting in themselves, what I most enjoy about them is what they tell us about the society of the time. This case has all kinds of fascinating angles and Blake explores and explains them thoroughly. Both Florence and James were suspected of having had affairs, but we see clearly the double standards that were in operation, with men being much more readily forgiven for this kind of transgression. Blake shows us how the growing newspaper industry first demonised Florence and then later took up her cause – all too familiar to readers of today’s tabloid journalism.

Although arsenic was known as a poison used for murder, it was also used for medicinal and even cosmetic purposes, and Blake shows how that confused the evidence. James was a bit of a hypochondriac, who took arsenic along with many other drugs on a regular basis. Florence claimed to use arsenic in a preparation for a facial lotion. And it was easily obtainable – even flypapers contained arsenic which could be released by soaking. So could the prosecution prove that James’ death was definitely murder? Could they even prove that arsenic was the cause of death? As in so many cases, then and now, both prosecution and defence could find expert witnesses giving opposing testimony on the evidence.

But the interest in this case is less on whether Florence did murder James or not, and more on what it showed about the justice system of the time. The judge had decided that Florence was guilty and his summing up left the jury with little option but to bring in that verdict, despite the fact that many people in the legal profession felt the case had not been proved satisfactorily. But at that time there was no right to appeal against a capital conviction. The only recourse was to petition the Home Secretary. The government, however, had to consider the loss of confidence in the justice system if they were to overturn the verdict of a jury and the sentence of a judge. The question of Florence’s guilt or innocence became lost as the establishment closed ranks around its own. And Blake shows how Queen Victoria’s own disgust at the idea of an adulterous wife put added pressure on the government not to show clemency.

Victoria Blake
Victoria Blake

An intriguing story and, despite having only 108 pages of text, the book is by no means too short to present all the arguments, due to the concise, clear writing and well-marshalled presentation of the facts and theories. Blake gives both sides equal weight, presenting the evidence of both prosecution and defence without bias. Only at the very end does she express her own opinion as to Florence’s guilt or innocence, and leaves it to the reader to decide whether she’s right.

The book itself is a pleasure – small but with excellent production values. The paper is good quality and there are over 20 plates, including photos of the main participants and locations, and some of the documents in the case. Many of the references in the book are to Home Office files and documents, appropriate for a book published under the auspices of the National Archive. This would be ideal gift material for anyone interested in true crime – I’m off to investigate the other titles in the series now…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

42 thoughts on “Mrs Maybrick (Crime Archive Series) by Victoria Blake

  1. I’ve been wondering what you thought of this one, FictionFan. I keep hearing such great things about it, and been keen to read it myself. I’m not surprised at all that it’s well-researched and informative. And it’s very good to hear that the story is told in an engaging and interesting way. As if this one weren’t already on my radar, your review has definitely moved it up on my list. My TBR is not helped by posts like this, you know… 😉

    • Haha! Well, you can talk! Your blog is a danger zone to us all! 😉 I really enjoyed this one – as someone who is partial to massive factual tomes, it was really an enjoyable contrast to read something that could be easily read in one sitting, and yet it didn’t feel at all as if it had been condensed. And the stuff about the legal system in particular was very interesting – good stuff!

  2. Great review! Seems like a great read, for sure. See, books don’t have to be longly long to be good. I think I win that round, the sudden. *congratulates himself*

    Imagine using arsenic for a cosmetic purpose!

    • Thank you! *smiles* Yes, indeed, I have to admit it was great to read something shorter for a change – all the factual books I’ve been reading recently have been massive! So…. OK! You win!!

      Yep, women are strange beasts! But I think it might be nice if I sent Clara some arsenic…

            • But you’ve retired! So you should throw the Katana away. I just got offered two guitar thingies for review – a finger strengthener (eh?) and a digital tuning thingy. Shame I don’t have a guitar really… *laughs*

              Yes, she is like a toad! I’m glad you’ve finally noticed! *relieved face*

            • Cool! Get them both! And you could always get a guitar…you know…it’s not too hard. Just takes some dedication. And it’s lots of fun.

              Hahaha. I’m one, too, tho.

            • Haha! I got offered a guitar stand too at the weekend – are you heading up a conspiracy?? I couldn’t play guitar to save my life… musically talentless, I fear! But the world needs listeners as much as players… *nods*

              Yes, but you’re a cute toad, while she’s a slimy one…

            • Oddly, no-one ever offers me a guitar though – perhaps I could use the stand as a coat-rack…

              Euwww! I’m not sure slithering counts as cool, you know, you know – and don’t get slime on your velvet jacket!!

  3. This sounds absolutely brilliant and right up my street. I was engrossed just reading the review and this is most certainly going on my list. Big congratulations to Ms Blake!

  4. Great review! The premise sounds interesting. And wait, arsenic is also used for cosmetic purposes?! *gasp* Perhaps more in nail polish than in other things else? I’d hate to put those stuff on my face! lol.

    • Thank you! Yes, it’s an interesting story and one I didn’t know about before. Ha! I know – the things people used to do to themselves in the name of beauty! But it seemed to be quite commonplace… weird!

  5. This sounds like my kind of nonfiction. There are so many nonfiction titles that interest me, but I find many of them are too long, causing me to put them on the back burner while I read my preferred fiction. Nothing wrong with being concise! On top of that, add poison and a murder trial. I will definitely be adding this to my list – I have to know what happened to the poor woman.
    I would also love to hear about the other titles in the series – let us know if you find anything else that looks good!

    • Yes, I do read lots of non-fiction but they usually are massive tomes, and honestly this one felt like just the right length – everything included that needed to be in there, but without tons of detail that might be interesting to researchers but less so to the casual reader. And this was an interesting case, one that I hadn’t come across before. Will do! There seem to be a few interesting titles in the series…

  6. So glad you felt the same as I did about this book – as you say despite being relatively short it covers more than just the basics, and fairly. Great review and I definitely want the rest of the series as I loved the design as well as the contents.

    • Thank you! I love the design too – they would make perfect stocking fillers, wouldn’t they? And I must say I really enjoyed being able to read the whole thing in one session – it made a refreshing change from the massively over-detailed tomes that factual books so often are…

  7. Super review, FF! I haven’t read this one, but it sounds most interesting. The length isn’t a problem at all; in fact, if the subject is dealt with in as much thoroughness as you’ve indicated, more words probably would only have been extraneous! Brava, Vicky!

    • Thanks, Debbie! Yes, I really enjoyed the shorter length – sometimes these factual books can get bogged down in unnecessary detail, but this one managed to cover all the important stuff quite thoroughly. It was a more in-depth read than I was expecting when I first saw the size – very well done!

  8. Sounds like my cup of tea (or poison). Is there a “just the right length” award? – if so, maybe we could nominate this one. I am SO tired of padding – it’s like the old days of pulps, when authors got paid by the word.

    • I know – it’s such a pleasure to read something that just tells you what you want to know and then stops, isn’t it? Nearly every book I read could cheerfully be a third shorter at least!

    • Ah, there is in the book – I just didn’t mention it in the review. Mainly because practically every man who was alive at the time seems to have been a suspect at some point! 😉

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