The Hour of Peril by Daniel Stashower

The President and the detective…

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Abraham Lincoln has won the Presidential election and now, in early 1861, is about to undertake the journey from his home in Springfield, Illinois, to Washington for his inauguration. But these are troubled times, and the journey is complicated because of all of the different railroad companies that own parts of the route. One of the company owners hears of a plot to destroy his railroad to prevent Lincoln making it to Washington, and so he calls in the already famous private detective, Allan Pinkerton. But when Pinkerton starts to investigate, he becomes convinced that there is a deeper plot in the planning – to assassinate Lincoln before he is inaugurated. This book tells the story of Lincoln’s journey, the plot against him, and Pinkerton’s attempt to ensure his safe arrival in Washington.

It’s written very much in the style of a true crime book, although it has aspects that fall as much into the category of history. Stashower focuses on three main aspects: a biographical look at Pinkerton and the development of his detective agency; the rising tensions in the still-new nation that would soon break out into full scale civil war; and Lincoln’s journey, and the plot against him.

Route of Lincoln’s whistle-stop inaugural trip 1861

The first section is mostly about Pinkerton, a man who started out as a political activist in his native Glasgow in Scotland until, perhaps to escape the authorities there, he emigrated to America with his young wife. I grew up knowing tales of the great American detective Pinkerton and his agents, but hadn’t realised he was born and lived only three or so miles away from where I spent my childhood years, so that was an added point of interest for me; plus the authenticity shown in the little time that the book spends on Scotland and the political situation there (about which I know a fair amount) convinced me of the author’s historical reliability. Once the story moves to America, Stashower shows us how this journeyman cooper gradually became a detective for hire, and then grew a business of many agents able to work undercover in all levels of society. Stashower discusses Pinkerton’s methods,  his policy that “the ends justify the means”, and the clients who called on him to prevent crimes if he could, or else bring the criminals to justice after the event.

The logo that gave rise to the expression, “private eye”

Pinkerton was also ahead of his time in recognising the value of women detectives, though it was actually a woman, Kate Warne, who convinced him of this when she persuaded him to hire her. She went on to become one of his most trusted agents, and played a major role in the events covered by the book, all of which Stashower recounts most interestingly. If any biographers are out there looking for a subject, I’d love to read a full bio of her life!

The focus then switches between Lincoln and Pinkerton, the one preparing for his journey, the other setting up his agents to infiltrate the pro-Secessionists in Baltimore, where the threat to Lincoln seemed to be greatest. The political background is woven into these two stories, with Stashower assuming some prior knowledge of the events leading up to the civil war on the part of his readers, but ensuring that he gives enough so that people, like me, whose understanding of that period is superficial and even sketchy don’t get left behind.

Stashower tells us of the various people surrounding Lincoln, and their differing opinions on how he should meet the threat. Given that he had won the election on a minority of the vote, it was felt to be important that he should let people see and hear him, trying to win them over before he took office. This meant that the train journey became serpentine, looping and doubling back so that he could visit as many places as possible. To make matters worse from a security point of view, his advisors and he thought it was necessary to put out an itinerary in advance, so that the people, and unfortunately therefore the plotters, would know when and where they could get close to him. To get to Washington, he would have to go through Baltimore – a state then known as Mobtown and one that was considered likely to go over to the Confederacy side in the event of war. Despite the fact that we all know that Lincoln survived for a few more years, Stashower manages to build a real atmosphere of tension – we may know the outcome, but I certainly didn’t know how or even if he would make it through Baltimore safely.

Pinkerton (left) with Lincoln and Major General John A. McClernand at Antietam in1862

Meantime, Pinkerton and his agents take us undercover deep into the conspiracy to stop Lincoln, showing how for many of those involved it was really a talking game, but for a few fanatics, it was a real plot. Pinkerton’s task was a double one – to trap the plotters while also managing Lincoln’s safe transit through this dangerous city. I’ll say no more, so that I won’t spoil the tension for anyone who, like me, doesn’t know this story. But towards the end I found it as tense as a thriller and raced through the last chapters with a need to know how it all worked out.

Daniel Stashower

Finally, Stashower gives a short summary of what happened afterwards to the various people involved – the people who travelled with Lincoln, Pinkerton and his agents, and some of the plotters. He also shows how conflicting versions of the story make getting at the facts difficult – Pinkerton and some of Lincoln’s people didn’t see eye to eye either at the time or afterwards, and each side perhaps embellished the facts to suit their own purposes. Nothing really changes, eh? Except maybe it’s a bit easier to travel from Illinois to Washington now.

A thoroughly enjoyable book – well written, interesting and informative, giving a lot of insight into this troubled period just before the Civil War. Highly recommended!

Thanks, Margot – you know my tastes well. 😀

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Furious Hours by Casey Cep

Harper Lee, Truman Capote and the Reverend Willie Maxwell…

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In June, 1977, a man walked into a funeral home in Alabama during a service, accused one of the mourners, Reverend Willie Maxwell, of murder and shot him dead. When the shooter, Robert Burns, was subsequently tried for the murder of Maxwell, everyone wanted a seat in court. Harper Lee got one. Years after helping Truman Capote with the research that lay behind his best-selling In Cold Blood, Lee had decided to write her own true-crime book, and the Maxwell case promised to provide plenty of material. In this book, Cep tells both stories: of Maxwell, the crimes of which he was suspected, his own murder and the trial of his killer; and of Harper Lee and her failed attempt to turn the Maxwell story into a book.

Cep starts by describing the still racially divided area of Alabama in which Maxwell operated, a place of black poverty and strong religion. The son of a black sharecropper, Maxwell received only a basic education. He served in WW2, then when he came home he married and worked in various jobs but found it hard to keep them. He took to preaching and gained a following, but he was hardly a good man even then – he used his preaching as a way to find vulnerable women he could seduce. After twenty years of marriage, his wife, Mary Lou, was brutally murdered. The evidence pointed to Maxwell and he was duly indicted. Between the indictment and the trial, with the breathtaking hubris that he would show time and again, Maxwell claimed on the insurance policy he’d bought not long before Mary Lou’s death. Despite this, he was found not guilty. Over the next few years, several of his relatives would die suspicious deaths, and Maxwell would make many insurance claims, but somehow he continued to evade the law, until Robert Burns, a relative of the girl assumed to be his latest victim, took justice into his own hands.

Rev Willie Maxwell

As with all great true crime, Cep uses this basic story as a jumping-off point to look at various aspects of the society of the time. First she looks at the birth and growth of the insurance industry and how it became open to abuse by both buyers and sellers. Amazingly, it was perfectly legal for someone to take out a policy on the life of another person without that person’s agreement, or even knowledge. It gave me a real insight into why so many American crime novels and movies of the mid-twentieth century feature insurance as a motive, especially in noir.

One of the reasons Maxwell continued to evade justice was that often it wasn’t possible to determine the cause of the deaths associated with him. Everyone suspected him, everyone feared him, but no one could prove his guilt. This led to rumours that he was practising voodoo, and Cep uses this aspect to look at the history of voodoo in the South, referencing Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological efforts to record rituals and practices.

Zora Neal Hurston beating a hountar, or mama, drum in Haiti 1937.

For years, Maxwell was represented by Tom Radney, a lawyer who not only defended him at trial but who assisted him with his insurance claims. Radney was a well known Democrat, and Cep goes into his biography in some depth too, expanding out to discuss the Wallace era in Alabama – segregation, white supremacy, etc. I found this very interesting, though I found it hard to reconcile the decent young liberal Tom Radney with the one who would assist Maxwell so enthusiastically a decade later. In an even more interesting twist, Radney would later defend Maxwell’s killer and become a friend of Harper Lee as she researched the case. A man of contradictions, and I’m not sure Cep managed to fully explain him.

In the second section of the book, Cep concentrates on Lee’s story, starting with a look at her childhood and student years, and her friendship with Capote. To be truthful, Lee came across to me as eminently unlikeable at this stage, rather arrogant and thinking she was above the common herd (which, of course, she was). Cep then goes into detail on the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird, including a discussion of how the book evolved from what we now know as Go Set a Watchman under the advice and guidance of her agent and publishers. Once the book was finished, there was a long wait until publication and it was during this period that Lee worked with Capote on the research for In Cold Blood. Cep gives her a lot of the credit for it, suggesting that it was she rather than Capote who was able to persuade the townspeople to open up to her.

Truman Capote signing copies of In Cold Blood with Harper Lee in 1966.
Photograph: Steve Schapiro/Corbis

Cep next talks about Lee’s life after Mockingbird. Burdened by success, grieving for her father and always complaining about punitive taxes, her friends and family worried about her mental state, and this would continue for most of her life. She wrote constantly but, never satisfied with her work, then destroyed the manuscripts. She drank to excess, often turning up drunk unexpectedly at friends’ houses. Then, after meeting Capote again and becoming acquainted with Tom Radney, she decided to try her hand at her own true-crime book.

Cep gives a brief but interesting account of the rise of true crime reportage in the US, from early pamphlets to the modern day. She discusses In Cold Blood and its impact in creating the “non-fiction novel”. She highlights the factual inaccuracies in In Cold Blood and reports some of the adverse reaction to it. She suggests that Lee was unpleasantly surprised by Capote’s fictionalising of the story, and that this fed into their growing coolness and separation. So when Lee decided to write her own book, she intended it to be true and based strictly on the facts.

Harper Lee

Cep also highlights Lee’s continuing desire to write a book showing that white segregationists could still be good people but, as now, that view didn’t fit the liberal consensus and would have been unpublishable at the time. (This made me think for the first time that perhaps she actually was happy to see Watchman finally published, and changed my reluctance to read it into eagerness.) Cep then tells of Lee’s research into the Maxwell case and her long and ultimately failed attempt to bring it together into a coherent book.

Casey Cep

The section on the Maxwell case is very good true-crime writing in its own right, but what makes this one stand out from the crowd is the association with Harper Lee. The whole section of analysis of Mockingbird and In Cold Blood is excellent, succinct and insightful. It’s not so much a literary analysis as an examination of the two authors’ creative processes, casting a lot of light on their personalities; all of which would be sure to make this book appeal to admirers of either of those works as well as anyone interested in true crime for its own sake. An excellent book – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

(If you want to go for total immersion, my suggested reading order would be: first Mockingbird, then In Cold Blood, then this, then Watchman.)

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The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton

Detecting the detective…

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Susannah Stapleton is a historical researcher and life-long fan of Golden Age crime novels. It was while reading one of Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley novels that she found herself wondering “Were there really lady detectives – proper fleshandblood ones – in the golden age of crime?” A little searching turned up the name of Maud West, who advertised herself as “London’s only Lady detective”. Intrigued, Stapleton turned her research abilities towards finding out more about this elusive woman, and along the way to learning about the world of private detection in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Maud’s story runs through the centre of the book, and we do gradually learn a good deal about her life. But Stapleton uses her as a jumping off point to look at all kinds of quirky aspects of society of her time, such as the growth in divorce cases, blackmail and extortion rackets, theft and kleptomania in high society, dodgy spiritualists, and the expanding role of women in the professional world – of detection, specifically, but also more generally. She uses actual cases to illustrate her subject matter and writes in an approachable, chatty style that makes the book easy and enjoyable to read. She’s also more than willing to allow her own opinions to come through, thus avoiding the dryness a more academic approach may have had, and she’s often humorous.

Maud was a mistress of self-advertisement, and wrote many articles for the newspapers and magazines of the day in which she related some of her racier adventures, with much gun-slinging, travel to exotic locations and evil blackguards whose dastardly deeds were thwarted by Maud and her team of crack detectives. Each chapter ends with either one of these tales or with an interview given by Maud to a journalist of the day. Stapleton can’t exactly disprove Maud’s stories, but nor could she prove most of them, and she’s clear that she suspects most of them are exaggerated at the very least, if not entirely invented. They add a lot to the fun though.

Stapleton digs down into old newspapers reports to find cases that Maud definitely worked on, and mostly these are to do with rather less glamorous crimes – divorces, thefts, missing persons, etc. That’s not to imply that her real work was dull – Maud was apparently a mistress of disguise, often dressing as a man in order to follow people or cases into places not easy for a “lady” to access. Her work involved her in some of the sensational society divorces of the time, and while the dope factories of South America may have been pure invention, she clearly did traipse around the spots of Europe where the rich Brits abroad got up to skulduggery, often of the amorous kind.

Maud in disguise

Maud the detective is easier to pin down than Maud the woman, though. Stapleton sifts through the many and varied stories Maud gives of her own origins in interviews over the years, and tries to get at the truth of who Maud was, where she came from, and how she ended up in “an unsuitable job for a woman”. This becomes a detective story in its own right, and the other interesting aspect of the book is that Stapleton takes us with her on her research journey rather than simply presenting us with the results. So we learn how she goes about looking up old records – censuses, birth and death records, newspaper reports and so on – and she tells us when something sets up a suspicion in her mind and how she then sets about proving or disproving it. Sometimes these leaps seem too fanciful, and often peter out, but even as they do they often reveal another piece of the jigsaw. As often happens with me when the subject of a biography is someone who didn’t necessarily want to put her private life in the public gaze, I found some of these details a little too personal, occasionally making me feel a shade uneasy. I was rather glad to discover that Stapleton herself had considered that aspect…

Doubt rippled through me. Had I got carried away? Were the dead fair game? And, if so, just how dead did they have to be to make it okay? Was Maud dead enough?

Without wishing to spoil the story, by the end, like Stapleton, I felt somewhat reassured about the acceptability of publishing the revelations she discovered along the way.

Stapleton also discovered that Maud’s claim to be London’s only Lady detective was entirely untrue. Not only were there other detective firms owned and run by women, but there were lots of women employed as store detectives, or working alongside the police in cases where women were able to gain easier access – in the fight against prostitution, for example, or secretly policing society events, or monitoring the more violent suffragette groups. Stapleton tells of how women gradually began to be officially employed by the police, usually as clerks but sometimes involved in detective work.

As the Leeds Mercury commented, however, ‘like all leagues to put women in the place which according to man they should occupy, the League of Womanhood has a man for its organiser.’ In this case, it was Captain Alfred Henderson-Livesey, a former officer in the Household Cavalry, who had devoted himself to reclaiming public life as an exclusively male sphere.
He’d even written a book on the subject. Sex and Public Life was, naturally, dedicated to his mother, and had a bright yellow binding to match the bile within. The main thrust of his argument was that professional women were not real women but genetically abnormal ‘sexual intermediates’ whose second-rate achievements were of interest purely because of their sex. As such, they must be stopped from corrupting the nation’s true womenfolk before the whole ‘virile race’ descended into debauched halfwittery.

Susannah Stapleton

I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Maud’s story is interesting in itself, but even more fascinating are all the insights into the darker recesses of Golden Age society and particularly the rapidly changing role of women in these early years of the fight for equality. I liked Stapleton’s relaxed and often humorously judgemental and sarcastic style, and found her account of her own researches as entertaining as the information they uncovered. And for Golden Age fans, there’s a special treat in the chapter headings, mostly (perhaps all) taken from the titles of famous mystery novels and stories – Partners in Crime, A Kiss Before Dying, A Case of Identity, etc. – and the various hidden references to some of the greats Stapleton makes in her text. Highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Picador.

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Book 2 of 20

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

The underground reservation…

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Driven from their ancestral lands, the buffalo they live on destroyed, their children forcibly removed to schools that indoctrinated them in white culture, the numbers of the Osage tribe had collapsed to just three thousand. But when the government insisted on a policy of allotments in their reservation, a forward-thinking chief and a half-Osage lawyer managed to ensure that the Osage retained mineral rights to the land – an “underground reservation”. So when they then leased their land to oil prospectors, the Osage became enormously wealthy. And then they started to die. This is the story of what happened to the Osage – what was proved, what was suspected at the time, and Grann’s own speculations about the truth with the benefit of distance from the events.

This was a mixed bag for me. It’s an astonishing and horrifying story as it relates to the treatment of the Osage, and a fascinating one as it relates to the development of law enforcement and the newly formed FBI. Unfortunately the telling of the story is patchy – some chapters are well written and informative, others are messy, repetitive and badly structured. Grann, presumably in an attempt to make it read entertainingly, jumps from tense to tense, and while it’s clearly exhaustively researched, the end result is an untidy combination of too much information without enough focus. As I feel I say too often, where was the editor? Name after name after name appears, then disappears either for chapters or for ever. I found that I was constantly trying to remember the relevance of some name thrown at me without reminder a hundred pages from the last mention.

From left: Minnie Smith with her sisters Anna and Mollie. Minnie’s and Anna’s deaths kicked off the investigation.
Photograph: Courtesy of Raymond Red Corn

The actual events, though, deserve to be widely known and remembered so I struggled on through. As the wealth of the Osage grew, so did resentment from the dominant white people. It’s hard to condemn people for being individually racist at a time when the nation was institutionally – constitutionally – racist. The government felt that these childlike neolithic savages (in their view) couldn’t be given responsibility for managing their own affairs, so appointed guardians, most of whom exploited their position to line their own pockets. Some men took guardianships over several members of the tribe, giving them considerable power. But for one man, or perhaps for a conspiracy of many, this wasn’t enough – they wanted not just to skim the wealth of the tribe, but to own it outright. To do this, they had to go to extreme lengths, including multiple murders.

At the same time, law enforcement was still in its infancy, with a populace who were highly suspicious of any form of government interference, as they saw it. Local lawmen and private detectives hired by various interested parties seemed to be dying too frequently too, so that eventually the locals appealed to the federal government for help. Enter the Bureau of Investigation, under the new rule of J Edgar Hoover who would introduce a more professional, scientific form of detection as he transformed the Bureau into the FBI. This part of the story is interesting, but I felt it could have been more fully developed. The agent who led the investigation, Tom White, had previously been a Texas Ranger, and Grann tells his story very well, using him to show how law was administered in those still relatively wild pioneering days, now made even wilder by the gangster culture created by Prohibition and the lure of the Osage’s wealth bringing all kinds of disreputable folk to the area.

David Grann

Grann takes us through White’s investigation, which unfortunately covers all the same ground as was in the early chapters. However, it picks up again when the criminals come to trial, and we learn about the rampant corruption in the justice system that made the job of the lawmen even harder. Grann then takes us on to read about what happened after the trial, to White, to the accused and to the tribe. In the final section, Grann gives his own speculation that there may have been even more murders than were identified at the time, using death statistics to make his case. He further suggests that more people may have been involved in the murders than were ever bought to trial. He talks rather movingly of how the murders continue to haunt the descendants of the victims, especially because of the suggestion that in some cases the murders were committed by white spouses of the tribe members, meaning that some people are descended from both murderer and victim.

So a fascinating and important story which, despite my irritation at the messy structure, I’m glad to have read and happy to recommend.

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American Heiress: The Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin

Money talks…

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When Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) back in 1974, it was such a huge story that it made headlines for months not only in the US but here in the UK too. I was in my early teens at the time – old enough to be aware of what was going on in the world but still young enough not to always fully understand it. Was she a victim or a terrorist? Willing or brainwashed? Heroine or villain? In this book, Jeffrey Toobin sets out to tell the story of the kidnapping and its aftermath, and to answer some of those questions. To do this, he also has to analyse the political and social forces of the time, and the counterculture which, in America, had grown out of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam protests.

Toobin begins by describing the kidnapping itself, which is effective in concentrating the reader’s mind on the fear Hearst must have felt at that moment, whatever her later actions may have been. He then backtracks to tell the story of the Hearst dynasty – Patty was the granddaughter of the newspaper magnate, William P Hearst, immortalised in Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane. It was therefore assumed that her family would be enormously wealthy and to a degree they were, although William P had left his money tied up in ways that allowed his children to lead pampered lives without having control of the capital. As was relatively normal then, Patty wasn’t fully aware of her father’s financial position so, like the members of the SLA, probably thought he had easy access to far more cash than was in fact the case. So his later inability to meet the SLA’s ever-increasing demands may have made her feel that she had been deserted and betrayed by him.

Marcus Foster – educator.
Murdered by the SLA prior to the kidnapping of Hearst.

Toobin then introduces us to the selection of misfits and oddities who made up the SLA. I never understood in my youth what the SLA was all about – who were the “Symbionese” and what were they trying to liberate themselves from? As Toobin describes it, it seems my vagueness on the subject is not so surprising after all. The leader, Donald DeFreeze, was a black man who had been “radicalised” in prison by a combination of the rhetoric of the Black Panthers and white, middle-class, left-wing students rebelling against their parents and The Man, man. DeFreeze and his two original followers – both female, both his lovers – drew up a kind of vague, incoherent manifesto, proclaiming themselves as a vanguard of the revolution against the fascist state and gave themselves a made up name, derived from the word “symbiosis”. They attracted a few more wannabe revolutionaries, all white, several of them theatre people, and they all liked to dress up and play soldiers and have copious amounts of sex to prove how much more politically mature they were than previous generations. It all sounds so silly and childish in retrospect, and Toobin makes it pretty clear they were a bunch of sad, insignificant losers. But with guns.

Myrna Opsahl
Mother of four.
Murdered by the SLA during a bank robbery in which Hearst willingly participated.

“Oh, she’s dead, but it doesn’t really matter. She was a bourgeois pig anyway.” – reportedly said by Emily Harris, murderer and one of Hearst’s fellow “revolutionaries”.

As Toobin tells it, the hope and innocence of the ‘60s had turned darker in the ‘70s, and in San Francisco the Summer of Love had been superceded by crime-filled streets, and the twin horrors of the “Zodiac” serial killer and the “Zebra” murders, carried out by a gang of black men randomly killing white people as a perverted kind of fightback against racial injustice. He talks about the disconnect between generations, and shows the widespread sympathy many on the left felt towards the low-level terrorist tactics of the counterculture, for a while, at least.

Jeffrey Toobin

Toobin then goes into detail on the events leading up to the kidnapping, and on Hearst’s long period in captivity. Hearst refused to talk to him for the book, but he had extensive access to other people and to primary source documents relating to the legal cases that followed. It seems clear that Hearst was radicalised in turn, and there will probably never be a definitive answer as to how much fear affected her, initially at least. But within a few months, she was gun-toting with the rest of them, willing to steal, bomb and kill for the cause, though subsequently it became clear she was equally willing to sell out her former fellow revolutionaries and go back to her pampered life when it suited her.

The whole thing is well written and excellently told, as informative about the wider society of the time as it is about the philosophy and actions of the SLA and the counterculture. I tried hard to maintain some level of sympathy for Hearst, but I see in my notes I’ve described her as “basically just a stupid, spoilt, violent, murderous little brat” so I guess my attempt to be non-judgemental failed. Toobin maintains considerably more balance in his summing up, and the final section describes the legal consequences for poor little rich kid Hearst and her surviving comrades, showing quite clearly that, when it comes to justice, money talks. Highly recommended.

The man who gave Hearst a full pardon following her conviction for armed bank robbery.
Money talks.

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The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrère

Comprehending the incomprehensible…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

On January 9th, 1993, Jean-Claude Romand killed his wife, his two young children and his parents and then failed to kill himself. Emmanuel Carrère tells us that, on reading about the case as it was splashed all over the newspapers, he quickly decided to write about it. It wasn’t the facts that interested him so much, though – he wanted to understand what went on Romand’s head. By corresponding with Romand, talking to his friends and neighbours, attending his trial and using his own understanding of what drives people, Carrère sets out in this book to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Romand’s act seemed to those who knew him to be completely out of character and to come out of the blue. But the police soon discovered that he’d been living a lie for most of his adult life. What started with a relatively small deception – that he had passed an exam when in fact he hadn’t turned up for it – snowballed until he had invented an entire imaginary career for himself as a doctor working in research for the World Health Organisation in Geneva. Amazingly, he carried this false identity off for many years, convincing not only friends and neighbours but also his wife and parents. To finance his lie he needed a source of income, which he got by embezzling his elderly relatives out of their life savings. It was when, finally, discovery seemed inevitable that he decided suicide was the only way out. His explanation of why he decided that his family too must die is chillingly narcissistic but has a kind of warped logic to it. But was his suicide attempt real? The prosecutors suggested he never intended to die – in their view, his plan was to lie his way out of responsibility.

Having recently read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, in which he too sets out to understand the minds of murderers, I saw a lot of similarities in the approach of the two authors. Each tells the story of the lead up to the crime, taking us back into the childhood and early years of the murderers in an attempt to understand them. Each takes us through the crime itself, sparing us none of the horrific details, but avoiding gratuitous description designed purely to shock or titillate. And each shows us the aftermath, both on the murderers and on the community affected by the crime.

But there are also differences, which in fact made me prefer this one. While both authors speculate beyond the known facts from time to time, especially with regard to motive and character, Carrère always makes it clear when he’s doing this, whereas sometimes Capote presents fiction as fact. This meant that I had a much clearer picture of what was evidence-based and what was Carrère’s own interpretation. Carrère inserts himself more openly into the book, which I found a little disconcerting at first. But gradually it gave me an understanding of how he too became affected by this crime, and of how his opinion of Romand changed over time. I found the personal insight he brought to the subject perceptive and well-judged, and I appreciated his honesty about his doubts over the ethics of giving a platform to this narcissistic murderer. He at one point quotes a friend, journalist Martine Servandoni, who told him:

“He must be just thrilled that you’re writing a book on him! That’s what he’s dreamed about his whole life. So it was a good thing that he killed his parents – all his wishes have come true. People talk about him, he’s on TV, someone’s writing his biography, and he’s well on his way to becoming a saint. That’s what you call coming out on top. Brilliant performance. I say, Bravo!”

Carrère doesn’t put forward a defensive counter argument. He simply makes it clear that he is aware of the question, and leaves it for the reader to decide. And of course the reader too is part of this dubious morality – a question that is raised every time there’s a gun massacre or terrorist attack. Should we give any publicity to people who step so far beyond society’s norms? And yet the desire to understand is irresistible. Carrère’s own doubts become more marked as he tells of Romand’s life in prison where he had at the time of writing become a kind of celebrity and had “discovered” God’s grace. Carrère leaves us to question whether he has truly found redemption or just one more lie to hide behind.

Emmanuel Carrère

A fascinating and very well written account that has given me much to think about – what makes someone behave like this, and what should our reaction be? I am chilled to discover that Romand is now eligible for parole and may soon be released* – I say I believe in rehabilitation and redemption but do I really, in every case? Against my rational will, part of me thinks he should have hanged or, being French, been guillotined. Or perhaps he should have been bludgeoned to death, as he did to his wife, or tricked and then shot, as he did to his children. Or shot in the back, as he did to his father. Or perhaps someone he loves should wait till he’s old and frail and then shoot him in the chest as he looks trustingly at them, as he shot the woman who bore him, loved him and supported him all his life. As a minimum, all of me thinks he should never be set free.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

*Happily, since I drafted this, the court has rejected his parole request. For now…

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In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Truth is in the eye of the beholder…

😀 😀 😀 😀

In November 1959, two men drove into the small Kansas farming community of Holcomb, broke into the Clutter family’s home and brutally murdered the four occupants, Herb and Bonnie Clutter and their two teenage children, Nancy and Kenyon. Before the murderers were caught, Truman Capote decided to write about the crime, so went to Holcomb to interview friends and neighbours of the victims, residents of the town, and the men investigating the case. It wasn’t long before the perpetrators were identified and captured, so Capote continued his project by writing about the trial and its aftermath – the imprisonment and execution of the murderers, Perry Smith and Richard “Dick” Hickock. This book, first published in 1966, is the result.

Capote approaches the subject from three angles, the victims, the townspeople and the murderers, with the narrative rotating among them. The Clutters, as portrayed here, were fine people, upstanding members of their community and their church, good neighbours and well respected. The children, especially Nancy, seem almost too good to be true, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much the old adage of never speaking ill of the dead had influenced the picture Capote paints. So even at this early stage of the book, I had begun to wonder how much reliance could be placed on Capote’s account of the people involved.

This feeling grew as the book progressed and Capote recounted as if they were facts things that he could only have learned from his interviews. While this may be fair enough with regards to the innocent people involved (though even then, oral testimony, especially when given not under oath, is notoriously unreliable), taking the words of Hickock and Smith at their own evaluation and drawing inferences as to their characters from this shaky evidence left me in a kind of limbo as to whether the book should be considered “true crime” or a fictionalised novel. I believe it gets categorised as a “non-fiction novel” – a description that seems deeply contradictory and problematic to me, designed to allow inaccuracies to pass unchallenged.

Book 37 of 90

To be clear, I found it extremely readable and, viewing it as fiction, the characterisation of the murderers is wholly credible. Capote seeks to understand them by going back through their early experiences for clues as to why they turned out as they did. Smith in particular had a terrible childhood, with an alcoholic mother who pretty much abandoned him and a father who was at best an intermittent presence and a disruptive one at that. Hickock is more difficult to pigeon-hole – his family seemed both respectable and caring. Capote ventures into psychiatry for answers, using the reports that were drawn up for the men by their defence team. He gives a relatively nuanced picture, neither seeking to whitewash them nor to wholly condemn.

His portrayal of the impact of this horrific crime on the small community is equally convincing. In a place where people didn’t feel the need to lock their doors at night, the intrusion of this horror seemed incredible, and Capote shows how for the first time neighbour began to suspect and fear neighbour. The arrest and conviction of the murderers couldn’t wholly put the genie back in the bottle, as Capote describes it – the townspeople’s feelings of security would never be the same.

An interesting omission is the perspective of the Clutters’ two older daughters, neither of whom lived at home. While Capote gives us some facts about them, we don’t get to know them at all nor to learn how they fared in the future. I could only assume that they refused to be interviewed for the book.

Some of the later scenes felt too contrived to be true, and I later learned on looking at wikipedia that some of the people involved had indeed denied their truth. For example, the scene where the wife of Perry’s jailer holds his hand while he sobs after being sentenced to death felt like something written for a Cagney film (or perhaps copied from one). And the super convenient final scene, played out between the chief investigator and one of the friends of young Nancy, now all grown up, provides a heartwarming conclusion of the restoration of order and the rebirth of all that is good and hopeful in life, and I didn’t believe a single word of it. According to wikipedia, the investigator later denied that it ever happened.

Truman Capote

So I have very mixed feelings about the book overall. It’s not got the essential truth to be true crime, and yet it’s presented too factually to really be considered a novel. And yet, it is beautifully written and intensely readable, and while it may not have factual truth, it feels as if, with regards to the personalities of the murderers, it may have achieved some kind of emotional truth – certainly emotional credibility, at any rate. I quite understand why it has a reputation as a classic of the genre – I’m just not sure what genre it’s a classic of. Perhaps it should be viewed as a one-off, uncategorisable. And as such, I’m happy to recommend it.

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Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit Fox

“…however improbable, must be the truth…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In 1908, an elderly lady, Miss Gilchrist, was bludgeoned to death in her Glasgow home and a brooch was stolen. Shortly afterwards, Oscar Slater pawned a brooch and boarded a ship bound for America. These two facts were enough for the police to decide that he was the guilty man and, sure enough, they arrested and charged him, and he was convicted and condemned to death – a sentence that was swiftly commuted to life imprisonment in response to a growing feeling of doubt over the verdict among some sectors of the public. This book sets out to tell the story of the case and specifically of Arthur Conan Doyle’s involvement in the campaign to have the verdict overturned.

Quite often with this kind of book I avoid mentioning the eventual outcome as, even though it’s a true crime, it can be fun for people who don’t know the story to read it as a kind of suspense thriller. However, Fox reveals all in her introductory chapter, so I shall say now that Slater’s conviction was finally quashed, but not until he had spent nearly twenty years in Peterhead, Scotland’s most notorious prison. As the book shows, there is no doubt about his innocence, and Fox makes no attempt to pin the crime on the real culprit – that’s not her purpose. Instead, she uses the case to examine the social factors that led to the false conviction, together with the state of the science of detection and ACD’s influence on it.

Fox starts with a description of the murder and the vague and contradictory eyewitness accounts of a man, or perhaps two men, seen near the scene. The police were immediately under pressure to find the murderer, so they were delighted when they were told that Slater had pawned a brooch similar to the one which had been stolen. Slater was perfect as a villain – German, Jewish, a man who made his living from gambling and who lived with a woman suspected of loose morals, possibly a prostitute. So even although they quickly discovered that the brooch he had pawned was not the one stolen from Miss Gilchrist, they decided not to let this little fact get in the way. Instead, they carefully selected all evidence that made Slater look guilty and suppressed anything that proved his innocence – and there was plenty, including an eyewitness account from a respectable neighbour who saw him elsewhere at the time.

Fox discusses the growing anti-Semitism of the period in Scotland, and the more general fear of foreigners. While Scotland hadn’t been quite as anti-Semitic as England in the past, massively increased immigration was leading to an upsurge, especially since many of the Jews arriving were poor, thus existing on the margins. They became associated in the public mind with crime. Also, new modes of transport and the requirements of an industrialised economy meant that people were more mobile than in the past, so that people didn’t necessarily know who their neighbours were, leading to a kind of fear of the stranger. So Slater was an ideal scapegoat, given that the police had no idea of the identity of the real murderer.

Conan Doyle became interested in the case early on. Fox runs through those parts of his biography that are relevant to him becoming a kind of consultant on cases of wrongful conviction, such as his early exposure to the work of Dr Joseph Bell, the man who inspired Sherlock Holmes. Much of this was already known to me, but Fox keeps it tightly focused so that it never feels like padding. She coins the phrase “diagnostic imagination” to describe ACD’s methods, suggesting that his early medical training of conjecturing from symptom back to diagnosis was the basis for his technique of what we would now think of as forensic detection – using physical clues to work backwards to the crime. Fox discusses very interestingly how at this period the pseudoscience of “criminal anthropology” was still influencing detection in Scotland and elsewhere: a belief that one could determine criminal tendencies by certain physical hallmarks – a system “that sought to cloak racial, ethnic and class stereotypes in turn-of-the-20th-century scientific garb”. This was giving way to the more forensic methods promoted by ACD, but not quickly enough to save Slater.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Fox continues the stories of both men turn and turn about, along the way providing a pretty damning indictment of the Scottish police and criminal justice system of the time. She personalises it by allowing us to read some of Slater’s correspondence with his loving parents and family, some of which is quite moving as they gradually age and his expectations of ever seeing them again grow fainter. During the war, no communication was allowed with Germany, so for years he went with no news of family at all. He wasn’t a particularly pleasant man, Slater, but the punishment he underwent for a crime of which he was innocent was cruel indeed.

Margalit Fox
Photo: Ivan Farkas

I found this a fascinating read, especially since rather to my surprise I learned quite a lot that I didn’t know about my own city and country. All the stuff about Glasgow – the class divisions, the way people lived, the prejudices and culture – feels authentic and still recognisable to this Glaswegian, and the wider picture of policing and justice in Scotland feels very well researched. The story of Conan Doyle’s involvement is also told well with lots of interesting digressions into the art and science of detection, and plenty of referencing to the world of Sherlock Holmes. One that I think true crime fans will thoroughly enjoy – highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Profile Books.

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The Long Drop by Denise Mina

Grimly Glaswegian…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

William Watt wants to clear his name. His wife, sister-in-law and daughter have been brutally murdered in their home, and Watt is the chief suspect. But convicted rapist and burglar, Peter Manuel, recently released from prison, claims he knows who did the murders and can lead Watt to the murder weapon, a gun which has passed from hand to hand through the criminal underworld of Glasgow. So one December evening in 1957 the two men meet and spend a long night together drinking and trying to come to some kind of deal – a night during which the truth of the killings will be revealed.

This book is based on the true story of Peter Manuel, one of the last men to be hanged in Scotland, in the late 1950s. A notorious rapist and brutal murderer, Manuel was a bogeyman in the Glasgow of my childhood, though he died before I was born. Adults spoke of him in hushed tones or sometimes threatened disobedient children that Peter Manuel would get them if they didn’t behave. In the old tradition, his story was turned into a rhyme that little girls sang while skipping ropes…

Mary had a little cat
She used to call it Daniel
Then she found it killed six mice
And now she calls it Manuel.

Despite this, I knew almost nothing about the actual crimes of which Manuel was convicted, so came to the book with no preconceptions, and made a heroic effort to avoid googling in advance. And although the blurb already seems to suggest what the outcome of the Watt case might be, it’s not nearly as clear cut as that – Mina does a wonderful job of obscuring and blurring the truth, so that I spent the whole time not quite sure how major parts of it would play out, and immediately had to rush off on finishing to find out how closely the story she tells had stuck to the facts. The answer is that she largely has, but has taken a few fictional liberties. These are just enough to mean the suspense element will work just as much for people who know the case as those who don’t, I think.

Above the roofs every chimney belches black smoke. Rain drags smut down over the city like a mourning mantilla. Soon a Clean Air Act will outlaw coal-burning in town. Five square miles of the Victorian city will be ruled unfit for human habitation and torn down, redeveloped in concrete and glass and steel…Later, the black bedraggled survivors of this architectural cull will be sandblasted, their hard skin scoured off to reveal glittering yellow and burgundy sandstone. The exposed stone is porous though, it sucks in rain and splits when it freezes in the winter.

But this story is before all of that. This story happens in the old boom city, crowded, wild west, chaotic. This city is commerce unfettered. It centres around the docks and the river, and it is all function. It dresses like the Irishwomen: head to toe in black, hair covered, eyes down.

Peter Manuel

But the story is only a part of what makes this wonderful book so special. Despite being in my pet-hate present tense, the writing is fantastic. The portrayal of Glasgow feels amazingly authentic – the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty; the buildings blackened by the soot of the industrial revolution before the big clean up that happened later in the century; the lifestyles of respectable people and criminals alike; the gangsters great and small; the perpetual almost tribal sectarianism between Protestant and Catholic that has marred so much of the city’s history; the relationships between married couples; the pubs as a male preserve; the edge of danger that comes from the ever present threat of violence – everything! It reminded me strongly of McIlvanney’s Laidlaw books – less poetic perhaps, or at least less affectionately so. McIlvanney doesn’t beautify the city or hide its darkness, but nevertheless his books read like a love letter to it and its people – Mina’s depiction is harsher, colder perhaps, but still balanced and nuanced.

And sometimes the book is gut-wrenching in its emotional truth and power. The man giving evidence about the murder of his daughter when we are made privy to his thoughts behind the spoken evidence. The sudden use of war metaphors when a man who had served in WW2 comes across a scene of bloody brutality. It drew tears from me more than once, for the fierceness of its truthfulness and the power of the prose as much as for the tragedies in the story. And there are other passages where a different, gentler kind of truthfulness emerges – the mother torn between her love for her child and what she sees as her duty to God; the children left to run free in the streets in a way that would be almost unthinkable now.

They search the car. In the glovebox they find a tin of travel sweets. The lid lifts off with a white puff of magician’s smoke. Inside, translucent pink boiled sweeties are sunk into a nest of icing sugar. These are posh sweets.

Reverently, the boys take one each. They savour the flavour and this moment, when they are in a car, eating sweets with friends. In the future, when they are grown, they will all own cars because ordinary people will own cars in the future but this seems fantastical to them now. In the future they will think they remember this moment because of what happened next, how significant it was that they found Mr Smart’s car, but that’s not what will stay with them. A door has been opened in their experience, the sensation of being in a car with friends, the special nature of being in a car; a distinct space, the possibility of travel, with sweets. Because of this moment one of them will forever experience a boyish lift to his mood when he is in a car with his pals. Another will go on to rebuild classic cars as a hobby. The third boy will spend the rest of his life fraudulently claiming he stole his first car when he was eight, and was somehow implicated in the Smart family murders. He will die young, of the drink, believing that to be true.

Denise Mina

The book has been longlisted for this year’s McIlvanney Prize and, though I’ve only read a few of the other contenders, I can’t imagine how any book could be a more suitable winner. Scottish to its bones, it nevertheless speaks to our universal humanity. Crime fiction where the quality of the writing and insight into a particular time and place would allow it to sit just as easily on the literary fiction shelf. Not only do I think this is one of the books of the year but I suspect and hope it will become a classic that continues to be read for many decades to come, like Capote’s In Cold Blood or McIlvanney’s own Laidlaw. I hope I’ve persuaded you to read it…

It was Cleo’s great review that tempted me to read this wonderful book – thanks again, Cleo! I owe you one!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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Book 5 of 20

Black River Road by Debra Komar

A question of character…

😀 😀 😀 😀

black-river-roadOne day in 1869, well-to-do architect John Munroe drove his mistress, Maggie Vail, and their baby daughter out in a cab to Black River Road near Saint John (in Canada). All three got out, ostensibly to visit friends, and later Munroe returned alone. He told the cab driver that Maggie would be staying with the friends. Some months later, the putrified and unidentifiable remains of a woman and child were found by people out picking berries near Black River Road.

Debra Komar starts this true crime story by discussing the trial of Jeffrey Dahmer, and the court’s decision that, despite the nature of his crimes, he was sane and could be held responsible for his actions. This decision was reached on the basis of evidence from Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist, who developed the theory of “universal lethality” – that all people have it in them to kill, and it is only social institutions that train us not to. Komar suggests that before this, character played a large part in criminal trials, including John Munroe’s, at a time when forensic science was still in its infancy. There was, she suggests, a widespread feeling that men of good character (aka rich people) wouldn’t commit horrific crimes, and that moral degeneracy was the preserve of the poor.

Komar then takes us back to tell us the story of how Munroe and Maggie became involved. Munroe was the spoiled child of an indulgent father. By the time he met Maggie, he was an upcoming architect who had married well, but for social position rather than love. His wife, however, didn’t show him the adoration he felt he deserved, so Munroe looked elsewhere. Poor Maggie – unmarried, overweight, and not very attractive – was willing to adore him as much as he liked. When the inevitable happened and her child was born, Munroe attempted to dump them, but Maggie wasn’t so easily dumped. Munroe played hot and cold with her, sometimes turning up unexpectedly, other times writing to her that she should stop contacting him. And then Maggie and child disappeared. Maggie’s sister received a letter, purporting to come from the illiterate Maggie, to the effect that she had met another man and gone off to Chicago to marry him.

This part of the story is very well told, giving a real feel for the coldness of Munroe’s character, and the rather desperate attempts of Maggie, now with a ruined reputation, to force him to meet his obligations to her and their child. The focus of the book is very much on this particular story, but we do get some idea of the wider society of the time, with the usual hypocritical gender bias that despised and ostracised an unmarried mother while cheerfully continuing to respect a male adulterer.

The story then moves on to the investigation and subsequent trial, with Komar showing at each stage how Munroe’s respectable position in society led to a widespread refusal to accept his possible guilt. The newspapers ran stories in outraged defence of him, and thirty-five people were called to give evidence of his good character, even though some of them barely knew him except through business dealings. The problem of identification added a layer of difficulty to the prosecution, and Komar gives dramatic, well written accounts of witnesses having to identify pieces of clothing or, gruesomely, the hair of the corpse.

An interesting crime story, well researched and well written. Komar’s decision to leave all reference to her sources to the notes at the back means there’s a good flow to the narration of events. The fairly narrow focus on the crime keeps the book down to a fairly shortish length. However, it also means we don’t get an in-depth picture of the society, nor of Munroe’s life beyond the crime – for example, we learn little about his relationship with his wife and legitimate children, before or during the trial. Within those limits, though, it’s an enjoyable read that I recommend to fans of true crime.

A re-enactment of the finding of the bodies...
A re-enactment of the finding of the bodies…

* * * * * * *

Spoiler ahead – if you don’t want to know the result of the trial, stop reading now!

True crime books tend to want to make a point and sometimes that rather works against them. I felt this was a case in point. During the trial, as many people were as willing to accuse Munroe as to defend him, though undoubtedly the establishment rallied round him to a large degree. But the police arrested him promptly, the trial allowed a good deal of leeway to the prosecution as well as to the defence, and when the question was finally put to the jury, they found him guilty in under an hour. If the argument is that good character was a strong defence, then it doesn’t seem to have worked in Munroe’s case. Despite appeals from his father, the government promptly refused mercy and Munroe hanged.

Debra Komar
Debra Komar

I had my doubts from the beginning, in fact, as to how well Komar would be able to make the case, because certainly Munroe was not the first “respectable” murderer to hang, nor the last. My cynical nature started out thinking that most humans probably had worked out long before Dietz made it a “theory” that murder is not the exclusive preserve of the obviously insane or degenerate, and I felt the outcome rather proved that than otherwise. This was a story that was interesting enough in its own right – it didn’t really need to make a point. In fact, I felt it made a quite different, and equally interesting, point – namely that, if the prosecution have good evidence, then juries are well able to judge guilt despite a defendant’s previous character, social position or the moral outrage of the press and establishment.

Overall, I’d have been happier to see rather less emphasis on that angle and a wider look at society and Munroe’s life instead. But these things are always subjective, and a different reader is quite likely to feel differently. I enjoyed it despite this reservation, and recommend it both for the story of the crime and as an interesting look at how the Canadian justice system worked at that time, quite efficiently it seems.

Debra Komar was recommended to me by the lovely Naomi at Consumed by Ink. Thanks, Naomi!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Goose Lane.

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The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath by Jane Robins

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

the magnificent spilsburyIn 1910, 30-year-old spinster Bessie Mundy was desperate to find a husband. No easy task at a time when young men were heading to the colonies in droves, leaving a surplus of unmarried women behind. Poor Bessie wasn’t particularly attractive but she did have the advantage of having an inheritance. A cynic might think this was what attracted handsome, charismatic Henry Williams to her. And when, after making her will in her new husband’s favour, she subsequently died in her bathtub, a cynic might even think nefarious deeds were afoot. Unfortunately for the future wives of Williams, aka George Smith, the inquest jury weren’t cynical enough, and found her death to be accidental.

Crippen-scarMeanwhile, also in 1910, Bernard Spilsbury was beginning to make his name as a forensic pathologist in the Crippen case. Amidst the gloopy yuckiness that was all that remained of the corpse found in Crippen’s basement was a small scrap of skin, with what looked like scar tissue on it. Spilsbury used this to positively identify the corpse as Crippen’s missing wife Cora, and despite the best efforts of the defence, he was unshakeable in the witness box. Crippen hanged. Top defence barrister Edward Marshall Hall later claimed that, had he been defending Crippen, he’d have made a case in court that would have over-ridden Spilsbury’s evidence and got Crippen off.

These three men, Bernard Spilsbury, George Joseph Smith and Edward Marshall Hall would eventually face each other at the trial of Smith in what became known as the case of the Brides in the Bath.

The Brides in the Bath - Bessie Mundy, Alice Burnham and Margaret Lofty
The Brides in the Bath – Bessie Mundy, Alice Burnham and Margaret Lofty

Robins tells her tale well, widening out from the specifics to look at the society of the time. She discusses the place of women, still indoctrinated to see marriage as the only fulfilment even if they had enough money or skills to survive alone. With the relative shortage of men, which would only worsen when WW1 commenced, Robins shows how women would resort to advertising for husbands in the newspapers, often mentioning their financial worth as an incentive. If successful in finding a husband, she would then become almost entirely subordinate to him, regardless of his behaviour. Divorce was still scandalous and hard to obtain – in fact, Robins uses Marshall Hall’s suggestion of how he would have defended Crippen to show that often juries would be sympathetic to those who murdered intolerable spouses as the only way to be shot of them. Vulnerable women were easy prey for men like Smith, who preferred to inherit from his dearly departed wives rather than working for a living.

George Joseph Smith
George Joseph Smith

The other main strand is the growing importance of the expert witness in criminal trials, especially pathologists. Robins shows that it was sometimes as much a matter of how well the evidence was presented that could sway juries, since they often didn’t understand the technicalities of the science. Spilsbury was tall and good-looking with a commanding presence and an unshakeable confidence in his own expertise – a nightmare for defence lawyers to break. Again in the case of Smith, Robins cites Marshall Hall, who pointed out that, had Smith been rich, he’d have been able to hire expert witnesses of his own, but in the days before legal aid the field was left open to Spilsbury acting on behalf of the prosecution to give his evidence more or less unrefuted. Robins also shows that some of the evidence that Spilsbury gave as definite fact doesn’t stand up to subsequent advances in science. The courtroom takes on aspects of theatre with Marshall Hall and Spilsbury vying to win over the audience by the quality of their performance, with truth becoming something of a victim of the process.

Edward Marshall Hall
Edward Marshall Hall

So, much of interest in the book and Robins writes well, holding the reader’s attention even through some of the necessarily detailed (and occasionally gruesome) forensic stuff. However, there are a couple of weaknesses too, which stopped me from enjoying this one as thoroughly as I did her later book, The Curious Habits of Dr Adams. Firstly, a lot of the information that she gives us about Smith’s murders must, I think, have come from the records of the trial, so that, when the book actually gets to the trial, it becomes very repetitive of much that has gone before.

Bernard Spilsbury
Bernard Spilsbury

Secondly, and more importantly, Smith murdered three women in an identical way, shortly after marrying them. The sheer fact of a man losing three wives by drowning in bathtubs after they had made out wills in his favour was surely more than enough for reasonable doubt to disappear, without any need for forensic evidence. He had only got away with it for so long because no-one had connected the cases. Once connected, and with the judge ruling that evidence regarding all three deaths could be introduced into the trial regarding the murder of Bessie, it hardly required a brilliant prosecution to prove his guilt. The fact that the jury convicted after just 22 minutes of deliberation would seem to confirm that. Therefore, it seemed to me that Spilsbury’s evidence as to the specific manner of death, however interesting and however well presented, was actually incidental to the case. I rather wished Robins had chosen a different case where the conviction was more dependent on the scientific evidence, or where some doubt existed as to guilt.

The sensational trial gave people something to take their minds off the war...
The sensational trial gave people something to take their minds off the war…
Jane Robins
Jane Robins

Robins finishes with a brief run-through of Spilsbury’s subsequent life and career, and left me wishing this part has been expanded. It’s largely a matter of subjective opinion, but for me the book would have been improved by concentrating more on Spilsbury’s work in general than on this one specific case, which, however sensational, was from a detection point of view rather straightforward.

However, I still found enough in the social aspects of the time and the conduct of trials and use of expert witnesses to make this both an enjoyable and informative read, and I look forward to seeing where Robins heads next. A little bird (namely, Cleo) told me that’s she’s going to be writing a crime novel – an enticing prospect! But not due out until December 2017 – I shall be waiting impatiently…

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Book 15
Book 15

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

Boys will be boys…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the wicked boyFor ten days in the summer of July 1895, two boys spent their time roaming round coffee shops and attending cricket matches, and telling anyone who asked that their mother had gone to visit relatives in Liverpool. They slept downstairs in the back parlour of their house, with a family friend who had come at their request to look after them. Meantime, an unpleasant smell was beginning to seep from the house, becoming so bad eventually that the neighbours complained to the boys’ aunt. When she forced her way into the house, she discovered the badly decomposed body of the boys’ mother, and immediately young Robert Coombes admitted to having stabbed her to death.

This is a chilling but fascinating true crime story from the end of the Victorian era. Robert Coombes was thirteen at the time of the murder and his brother Nattie was twelve. The idea of the matricide itself horrified contemporary society enough, but it was the cool behaviour of the boys over the following ten days that made the crime seem even more shocking. Evidence showed that the murder was planned – Robert had bought the knife specially a few days earlier, and he later claimed that he and Nattie had arranged a signal for when the deed should be done.

The first part of the book concentrates on the crime and the trial procedures and Summerscale covers these with her usual excellent attention to detail. Because they felt that their case against Robert would be stronger if his brother gave evidence, the prosecution were keen to have the charges against Nattie dropped, since at that time defendants were not allowed to tell their story in court. In the early proceedings, Robert had no lawyer or other representation and was expected to cross-examine witnesses by himself. The boys’ father was a steward on board a transatlantic cattle vessel, and wasn’t even aware of the murder till after the first hearings had taken place.

The front page of the illustrated Police News 1895
The front page of the illustrated Police News 1895

Although this all sounds horrific to our modern ideas of justice, especially for children, there seems little doubt that Robert was indeed guilty, and some of the court officers did their best to make the process as easy for him as they could within the system. The boys were held in an adult jail during the trial process, but had individual cells – a luxury they might be unlikely to get today. The boys’ extended family did show up for the hearings, so Nattie at least had some adult support.

The defence quickly decided to try for an insanity ruling, which meant that they actually preferred for there not to be a rational motive, while the prosecution felt Robert’s guilt was so obvious they didn’t need one. The result of this is that no-one ever really asked why Robert did it, and so the motivation remains unclear. Summerscale suggests on the basis of some fairly circumstantial evidence that the mother may have been cruel to the boys in her husband’s absence – there is a suggestion that she too suffered from “excitability” and extreme mood swings, and may have beaten the boys badly, but this is largely speculation.

In this first section, Summerscale also widens her discussion out to look at the society and living conditions of the time. Robert’s family was working class, but not grindingly poor – his father had a decent income, and the boys got a good education. However, at that time, there was much debate as to whether educating the poor was a good thing, especially since the ability to read allowed boys access to the “penny dreadfuls” of the time, which many considered to have a bad influence on impressionable young minds. Robert had a collection of such pamphlets, and the press made much of this. The crime took place in Plaistow in Essex, an industrial area within the range of the heavily polluted atmosphere of London. There was also much debate at that time about the general poor health of the urban poor, while the acceptance of the theory of evolution brought with it a belief in the possibility of its opposite, degeneration. It all reminded me of the “bad boy” culture that Andrew Levy discussed so thoroughly in his book about Twain’s young hero, Huck Finn’s America.

Robert Coombes as as adult around the late 1930s
Robert Coombes as as adult around the late 1930s

The second half of the book tells the story of what happened to Robert after his conviction. Summerscale is asking, and answering, the question of whether someone who has done such a dreadful thing can go on to lead a normal, even worthwhile life. Robert spent several years in Broadmoor, the hospital for the criminally insane, where again because of his youth he was in fact treated more kindly than we might expect. This whole section is fascinating in what it tells us about the treatment of those judged criminally insane. In fact, from time to time there were complaints that the treatment was too kind – that people were faking insanity to avoid the much harder regime in normal prisons.

Kate Summerscale
Kate Summerscale

This is not the end of Robert’s story, though. Following his eventual release from Broadmoor, Summerscale follows his trail through the rest of his life, uncovering some interesting and unexpected details about how he turned out. So often true crime stories from the Victorian era end with a conviction and capital punishment. This one, being somewhat later and also because it concerned a child, is intriguing because we are able to see the aftermath. At the point of conviction Robert would undoubtedly have been seen as some kind of monster, but Summerscale lets us see whether the rest of his life confirmed that or allowed him to find some kind of redemption. Immaculately researched, well written and presented, this is easily the equal of Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, and personally, having worked with boys of that age with troubled and often criminal histories, I found this one even more interesting. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Group.

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The Secret Poisoner by Linda Stratmann

50 ways to kill your lover…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

 

the secret poisonerLiberally illustrated by true tales of crimes from the Victorian era, the book’s real focus is on advances and developments in the science of detection and the prosecution of poisoning cases. In each chapter, Stratmann looks at one aspect of these and gives one or more examples to show their impact in practice.

Stratmann opens with the case of Eliza Fenning, a maidservant hanged for the attempted poisoning of her employers. This case came to be seen as a major miscarriage of justice, highlighting the inadequacies of the justice system as it related to poisoning cases. Cases were dependant on proof of two things – that the victim had in fact been poisoned, and that the accused had deliberately administered the poison. The science at the time was so weak that proof of the first part was almost entirely dependent on observation of the victim’s symptoms, and the second was complicated by the fact that poisons were readily available without any safeguards, and in fact were often used in small doses as medicines.

Arsenic was the poison most often suspected in the early days of the period, and at this time women were the ones most likely to be accused of using it. Although the focus of the book is on the science, Stratmann also touches on the social conditions behind many of the cases she discusses. Arsenic was easily obtainable and simple to use, and its use as a rat poison meant that there was nothing particularly suspicious about women buying it. At the time, divorce was difficult, especially for the poor, and especially for women. While men could divorce an unfaithful wife, a woman could only divorce her husband for much worse things; for example, if he was violent or deserted her. Married women had no property rights – whereas a widow could inherit her husband’s property. So the temptation to do away with a brutal (or sometimes just boring) husband was always there…

Eliza Fenning... before the hanging!
Eliza Fenning… before the hanging!

But it wasn’t only inconvenient husbands who could be disposed of with relative ease. During this period, the Government changed the law so that an unmarried mother could no longer get maintenance from her child’s father through the court. Add to this the rise of ‘burial clubs’ – an insurance scheme where payouts greater than the cost of the funeral would be made on the death of the insured – and it’s hardly surprising there was a rise in the number of cases of infanticide amongst the poor. Stratmann makes two interesting points about these cases – firstly, that women murdering their children tended to use laudanum rather than arsenic because it was a ‘kinder’ death, causing less suffering to the victim; and, secondly, that juries, who probably had a good understanding of the impossible poverty some women found themselves in, tended to take a more sympathetic and lenient view of such cases than we might expect from Victorian men.

Stratmann makes the point that, although there were indeed many poisoning cases in the period, much of the hysteria around the apparent prevalence of poisoning was due in large part to the effect of ‘moral panic’, as the media and special interest groups whipped up fear amongst the populace for their own advantage. The new Pharmacists Association and the forerunner of the British Medical Association saw panic over poisons as a means to boost recognition of their own professions as the best people to sell and control drugs, while nothing sells more newspapers than a horrific murder and, preferably, a good public hanging to follow.

The trial of Dr Palmer, the Rugeley Poisoner
The trial of Dr Palmer, the Rugeley Poisoner

As the science of detection gradually improved and the Government slowly began to take measures to make the purchase of arsenic a little harder, the focus changed somewhat to vegetable alkaloids, such as the infamous strychnine. Since these poisons were harder to get hold off and in some cases required a bit of knowledge to use effectively, the ‘moral panic’ pendulum swung and it was now men who were seen as the main poisoners, especially well-educated, respectable men. Again Stratmann raises some interesting points here, such as the reluctance of doctors called in to such cases to suggest poisoning because of the elevated social positions of the ‘suspects’. She gives us examples of cases where a wife would be slowly poisoned, with her attending physicians suspecting poison for days, even weeks, before death but doing nothing constructive to stop it. The British class system at play as usual – isn’t it great?

Death mask of Dr William Palmer... after the hanging!
Death mask of Dr William Palmer… after the hanging!

Meantime, the science was improving but unfortunately the egos of the scientists were growing alongside. Now both prosecution and defence would call ‘expert witnesses’ who would battle it out in court, more interested sometimes in their own reputations than in the guilt or innocence of the accused. This had the double effect of making it next to impossible for jury members to decide on scientific points they didn’t understand, while undermining public faith in science in general. In some of the examples Stratmann cites here, I was frankly glad I hadn’t been on the jury, as both sides set out to destroy the reputation of the other. She also compares the British system to the French, where the court would appoint its own expert, thus avoiding this kind of courtroom confrontation (but also meaning that perhaps too much reverence and faith was placed on one man’s opinion).

Linda Stratmann
Linda Stratmann

So, interesting stuff. Unfortunately overall, I found the interesting bits were pretty deeply submerged under a lot of scientific stuff I didn’t really understand and didn’t think was explained clearly enough for the layperson. Also, there are far too many examples of cases given, all complete with very similar gruesome descriptions of vomiting, bodily excretions, autopsies and horrific scientific experimentation, mainly on dogs. All the cases eventually merged into one mass of yuckiness – a few cases more carefully chosen would have been much more effective, in my opinion. By the final few chapters, I was skipping over the cases, and the science, I must admit, to get to the little bits of interest to me. In the end, I felt it was all too detailed and had too much repetition of points already made. However, it is undoubtedly a thoroughly researched and well written book which will be a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the science, justice system or social conditions of the time.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

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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…

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A Very British Murder by Lucy Worsley

a very british murderFrom melodrama to noir…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Lucy Worsley has set out to trace the roots of the British obsession with murder – as consumers, rather than participants. She makes the case that the fascination with murder corresponded to the increasing urbanisation of Britain during the nineteenth century which, because neighbours no longer knew each other as they had done in a more rural age, meant that murders could be much harder to detect. And what could be more thrilling than knowing that a murderer might be on the loose? Combine that with the rise of affordable printed material, such as the Penny Dreadfuls that became available during the Victorian era, and suddenly the commercial potential of murder, real or fictional, was huge.

The book is light in tone and an easy, enjoyable read. Worsley also presented a companion TV series (which I didn’t watch) and the book is written in an episodic format, presumably to tie in with that. Much of the material will be familiar to anyone with an interest in crime fiction or true crime, but the format draws interesting parallels between the society of a given time and how that influenced the type of crime fiction that was being written. She takes us through the major real-life cases of the Victorian age, such as the Road Hill House murder or the Maria Manning case and shows how these were reflected both in stage melodrama and in the early crime fiction of Dickens, Wilkie Collins et al. We see how the rise of the police detective in real-life began to be mirrored in some fiction, while the early failures of the police to solve crimes left the door open for the rise of the fictional amateur sleuth. Of course, Worsley talks about Holmes and Watson in this context, but she also casts her net more widely to discuss sensation writers such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and early fictional female sleuths and how they reflected and to some degree challenged the Victorian view of women in general.

(Excerpt from the historical puppet show of the real-life Red Barn murder starring Bill Nighy and Diana Quick courtesy of the V&A)

As she moves into the twentieth century, Worsley largely pulls away from true crime to concentrate on the fictional. She discusses the Golden Age authors in some depth, giving almost mini-biographies of some of them, particularly Dorothy L Sayers. She argues (as others have done) that the Golden Age puzzle with its fairly defined rules developed as a response to the horrors of WW1 and fed into a society that wanted something a bit cosier than the blood-curdling melodramas of the past. She discusses how class and gender were represented in these novels, but keeps the tone light – though it’s clearly well-researched, this book never reads like an academic study.

Lucy Worsley
Lucy Worsley

After the Golden Age, Worsley rushes through hard-boiled fiction and today’s appetite for the noir and the serial-killer, but this last chapter is really just a post-script. Her position seems to be that the mystery novel declined as a form after the Second World War, to be replaced by the more violent thriller genre – true to an extent, but the huge market for cosies suggests to me that there’s a bigger appetite for ‘traditional’ murder mysteries still than I felt Worsley acknowledged. And there are still plenty of police procedurals that at heart are the descendants of the Golden Age, where clues and character are still more important than blood-soaked scenes of violence and torture. Thank goodness!

An interesting and enjoyable read, which I would suggest would be an ideal entry-level book for anyone looking to find out more about the history of crime fiction and its links with society.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Ebury.

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Silent Witnesses: A History of Forensic Science by Nigel McCrery

“All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

silent witnessesNigel McCrery has had an interesting career – an ex-policeman turned screenwriter, he’s the man behind such successful TV dramas as Silent Witness and New Tricks, and has also written several crime novels. All of which makes him perhaps the ideal person to write a book on the history of the contribution of forensic science to crime detection.

Each chapter looks at a different aspect of forensics – ballistics, blood, fingerprinting, the human body, DNA etc. McCrery introduces us to the scientists and detectives who developed the techniques and tests that gradually led to the current state of play where forensics is one of the major planks of detection. In less skilled hands, this could be a very dry subject indeed, but McCrery writes flowingly and interestingly, making the people come to life and explaining the science in a way that is easy to understand.

What makes the book most interesting is that McCrery tells the stories of the true crimes that were the earliest to be solved by each individual technique, and he ranges widely across the world to do so. He takes us back in time to the earliest days of detection to give a picture of the primitive, sometimes barbaric, methods that were used prior to the development of scientific methods – so we learn, for instance, of the suspect forced to share a bed with the bodies of his supposed victims to see if guilt would produce a confession. Or how about the early method of identifying an unknown victim…

“The head was presented to local magistrates, who ordered that it should be cleaned up and its hair combed. After it had been prepared in this way it was taken to St Margaret’s Parish Church and stuck on a pole for all to see. The queue to view the remains was apparently so long that traders worked the crowd selling food and water.”

Nigel McCrery
Nigel McCrery

McCrery uses a chronological approach to telling his story, so in the chapter on the gun, for instance, we learn about its history from its earliest appearance as a Chinese ‘fire-lance’, through the invention of flintlocks and on to revolvers. At each step he explains what methods could be used to match a particular gun with its bullets and, while I must admit my lack of knowledge about ‘rifling’ has never kept me awake, I found it unexpectedly interesting. On the subject of blood, McCrery takes us back to the days when there was no test to differentiate between human and animal blood, and then leads us through the development of blood-typing and the increasingly sophisticated tests that could be used to match samples. The chapter on poison reveals, amongst other things, why it’s often thought of as a ‘woman’s weapon’ as he tells us about the history of women in the days of forced marriages forming little societies to get rid of their unwanted husbands…

“During the 1650s there was a noted increase in the number of young, rich widows in the larger cities of Europe…A group of young wives, some from among Rome’s first families, were meeting regularly at the house of Hieronyma Spara, a well-known witch and fortune-teller. She was training these women in the art of poisoning. Papal police arrested La Spara and she and several other women were hanged. A further thirty young wives were whipped through the streets.”

And finally, McCrery ends with a look at DNA and how this has revolutionised detection, both as a means of catching the guilty but equally importantly of clearing the innocent. The cases he uses throughout as examples are interesting and well-told, though as we reached closer to the present, I felt a little uncomfortable with the thought of using murders still within living memory as part of what is really an entertainment. However, he does it with a good deal of sensitivity and due respect for both victims and their families.

A fascinating and informative book that is also well-written and enjoyable. Recommended to anyone with an interest in murder…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

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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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Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Midnight_in_Peking‘The evil that men do lives after them…’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a fascinating story of a true-life crime committed in the last days of old Peking as the threat of invasion, war and revolution spread fear amongst the Chinese and foreign inhabitants of the city.

Author Paul French has researched the murder of 19-year-old Pamela Werner thoroughly and tells the tale well. Was Pamela an innocent schoolgirl or an independent and rebellious young woman bent on sampling some of the excitements Peking could offer? Was she murdered by a maniac or by someone closer to home? French shows how the investigation developed, first through official channels of the Chinese police and the British Legation, then when that led to nothing, through a private investigation funded by Pamela’s father. And French’s solution, when it comes, is as convincing as it is horrifying.

Pamela Werner Schoolgirl?
Schoolgirl?
Or sophisticate?
Or sophisticate?

While the story of the murder is intriguing enough in itself, the added interest of the book comes from the light French sheds on the city of Peking at this time of fear and change. He is scathing about the diplomatic cover-ups and corruption that hampered the investigation as the British Legation tried to stamp out any word of scandal that might reflect on their community. He shows the contrast between life within the gated foreign quarter, with its dances and tea parties, and life outside in the Badlands, a place where vice of all kinds was available for a price, a place where some of the ultra-respectable foreigners led a very different life. French gives a clear account of the political picture of the time as the Japanese surrounded the city prior to invasion, as the ideas of fascism and communism were spreading throughout the world, as war seemed an ever more likely prospect.

Paul French
Paul French
A very well written book about a dark episode in a fascinating period – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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