Posted in 20 Books of Summer 2015!, Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

Dancing for the Hangman – Martin Edwards

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Crime Fiction 5*s
Historical Crime Fiction

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!


A book lover who clearly has issues as obsessed with crime despite leading a respectable life

29 thoughts on “Dancing for the Hangman – Martin Edwards

  1. Glad you enjoyed your first book of your summer 20. I’m putting it on my list. I want to get back to Martin Edwards’ series that’s set in the Lake District.


  2. Thanks, Cleo, for the kind words. I’m so glad you enjoyed this one as much as you did. I do think that Edwards does a superb job here of telling Crippen’s life and accounting for the death of his wife. As you say, he’s woven together fact and fiction in a very convincing and interesting way. But then, I’m an Edwards fan; I think he does fine, fine work.


  3. Sounds intriguing! It’s funny how some cases catch the public imagination and become the stuff of legend. Always interesting to see another take on them, especially when it’s well-researched. Thanks for a great No. 1 – please don’t add another 19 to my list over the summer!


  4. I remember reading about Dr,Crippen many years ago in The Readers Digest. I’d somehow formed a picture of a vicious murderer in my mind, but Martin Edwards’ book has brought forth another viewpoint. For a moment I was confused when I read the date of the trial as Nov 23 2010, but then I guessed that it was a typo. Your review makes me want to read this book 🙂


  5. I have a problem reading fictionalized accounts for, as you state, you don’t know where fiction begins and ends. I usually end up wishing that I’d just read a non fiction book on the subject. There’s a non fiction book by Edwards that I want to read. I’ve read several intros to other crime books by him, so it makes sense that I eventually will read a book by him.


    1. I was very impressed by this one as all the facts I already knew or checked were right but the conjecture of the emotions was invented – I definitely want to read more by this talented author.


  6. This sounds interesting, though the line between fact and fiction is sometimes something that bothers me. As I know little about Crippen I think I could suspend belief though and just go with the story.


  7. This sounds like an interesting read and from a writer’s point of view I marvel at these kinds of books are written, the work and research that must go into them. It gives them an extra dimension following true events that way.


  8. Thanks for your generous review. This was a book I really enjoyed writing, although it was very different from my other novels, all of which are set in the here and now. My aim was to stick to all the known facts, and invent only material that was consistent with those known facts. A very interesting challenge from a writer’s perspective, and one of these days I might try something similar again.


    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment on my review – I for one would be delighted if you tried to do something similar to this again, an immensely interesting and enthralling read.


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