Dancing for the Hangman is a fictionalised account of Hawley Harvey Crippen’s life leading up to 23 November 1910 when he was hanged by John Ellis at Pentonville Prison in London for the murder of his wife Cora.
Martin Edwards has written a book that seeks to explain the psychology and events that led to this seemingly mild-mannered man who committed (if that is indeed the case) the crime and then who fled from England to Brussels with his secretary Ethel Le Neve. There they boarded a ship to Canada where they could begin a new life. Unluckily for Crippen the ship’s captain Henry Kendall became suspicious of the man and his son (Ethel was disguised as a boy), he was well aware that the police were hunting the pair as the newspapers were full of the story. Using the latest wireless telegraph technology, word was sent that British authorities that the cellar murderer was on board the Montrose and there was only ever going to be one ending to this story, wasn’t there?
So convincing is this tale that I will undoubtedly repeat the fictionalised parts as fact for years to come as it was impossible to tell where the truth ended, and where Martin Edwards has used conjecture in this ‘true confession’ We are taken back to Crippen’s life as a young man, his first marriage to Charlotte and her untimely death which led to him leaving his two-year-old son Otto in the care of his parents while he travelled to New York to practice as a homeopathic doctor.
We travel backwards and forward with Crippen as he meets and falls deeply and passionately in love with Cora and at first all appears well. Crippen supports his wife in her wish to tread the boards and despite set-backs in his professional life this only illustrates his resourceful nature.
Edwards gives a convincing explanation to the events that led to Cora’s death and Crippen’s naïve hope that his mistress Ethel can move into 39 Hilltop Crescent without causing suspicion. Crippen hadn’t bargained for the ladies of the guild who didn’t take to Cora’s replacement and nor did they accept his vague and varied explanations to where she had gone.
I’m not sure that I found Crippen the sympathetic character as I was supposed to. He struck me as very naïve but also quite arrogant and selfish but undeniably weak, especially when faced with strong-willed women. Cora is not painted in a flattering light at all by the author and so Crippen received my sympathy through her flaunting of her lovers, backing her poor husband into a corner, unable to leave and make a life with his new love, but unwilling to stay with a woman who scorned him.
The book is split between the fictionalised confession, Crippen’s thoughts following his conviction and true excerpts from the trial, evidence presented and newspaper articles from the time, which never lets the reader forget that this was a real crime.
I don’t know how close to the truth the author got, but he obviously thoroughly researched his subject and has written a highly informative and interesting book that maintained the tension despite the fact that the outcome was already known to me.
This has got my 20 Books of Summer 2015! Challenge off to a wonderful start with Dancing for the Hangman promoted from the TBR to the historical crime shelf. I’d like to finish by saying thank you to Margot from Confessions from a Mystery Novelist for her recommendation, she was right, I loved this book!