Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Murder of Harriet Monckton – Elizabeth Haynes

Historical Crime Fiction
5*s

I like reading non-fiction books especially about true crime, even better if they are back in the past; I think this is because it feel less like I am trying to gain entertainment from someone’s tragedy, and if it is new to me too, well that is the icing on the cake. The problem with some non-fiction true crime is that you don’t get a real feel for some of the characters, often the victim who is often dead before we meet them and unless they’ve been murdered for their own dastardly acts they can appear as nameless victims. It is for this reason that my preference for true crime is that which is presented as fiction using the crime itself as inspiration. This is what the incredibly talented Elizabeth Haynes has done with the story of The Murder of Harriet Monckton.

Harriet was living in Bromley Kent, she was a single woman of 23 years old; a school teacher and observed to be a devout Christian attending the local Chapel regularly. It turns out that Harriet was also around six months pregnant when she died from ingesting Prussic acid on 7 November 1843 and her body was found in the privy behind the chapel the following day. A sad end and one that because the vessel containing the poison could not be found, the only conclusion was that this had to be a murder. But who would want Harriet dead?

Elizabeth Haynes tells us at the end of this magnificent book that she has used the two inquests held as well as newspapers from the time to recreate the key characters in the book. She has done magnificently well. Every single person we come across works as an individual, and as a collective taking up their positions in their small town, they are at times terrifying in what they are willing to see, to acknowledge and to challenge. I cried for Harriet who had so much to offer but was sadly one of those women who was taken advantage of, and lost her life because of it that comes through whether or not you take the history that the author has created to be credible or not.

Bringing the forgotten back to life is the real triumph when fictionalising a real crime. No one was ever tried for Harriet’s murder, in fact once the coroner had finally concluded the inquest some two years after her death any traces of her life seem to vanish alarmingly quickly. Elizabeth Haynes states at the end of the book that she couldn’t leave this young woman without telling her story – and I heard that story loud and clear. In the hands of this undoubtedly talented lady, we are presented back with a fully rounded woman, with hopes and fears, with errors of judgement made and plans for a better future made – the facts that are contained in the recording of her life are fed into a story that can be taken at face value and read as an example of a life lived, in 1843, in Bromley so minutely were the details recreated for our consumption.

If you haven’t already guessed, I adored this book for the premise, the skill in recreating a life, the rich story that has been served up to the reader and the characters that leap off the page, The Murder of Harriet Monckton will most definitely be a book that will appear in the top ten published this year.

First Published UK: 28 September 2018
Publisher: Myriad
No of Pages: 437
Genre: Historical Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Other Books by Elizabeth Haynes

Into the Darkest Corner (2011)
Revenge of the Tide (2012)
Human Remains (2013)
Under a Silent Moon (2013) – DCI Louisa Smith #1
Behind Closed Doors (2015) – DCI Louisa Smith #2
Never Alone (2016)

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2017

Poison Panic – Helen Barrell

Non-Fiction
4*s

In the 1840s the level of literacy was still low across the United Kingdom, but stories of crimes committed didn’t need to be read by everyone for them to spread, especially when the crime was murder, even more so if committed by a woman and panic inducing when the means by which a person was slayed was poison.

In Essex the county was the unfortunate scene of the panic induced by tales told both orally and by the newspapers about a number of women put on trial for poisoning unwanted relations using arsenic. There were calls for regulations and a strong sense that there was a shadowy group of women who were acting in cahoots or at least devising a method to poison people and walk away from the horrific crime with no stain on their character.

Helen Barrell’s book, Poison Panic, delves into the facts, and the fiction, of these events using all available sources to examine the cases and to evaluate whether there was any sense of collusion between the women whose crimes feature here.
This book is jam-packed, not just with the details of the three women Sarah Chesham Mary May and Hannah Southgate whose crimes in rural Essex led to wariness about that gentle hand at home who was in charge of preparing the food, slipping some of the notorious white powder into the dish, but also on some of the social history. We learn just how rudimentary their homes were, the rats that plagued the household were hopefully kept at bay with arsenic, houses where one man’s struggle with the results of arsenic poisoning were more than a slight inconvenience for his downstairs neighbours and houses where money from a burial club might just make it worthwhile to bump of an unsuspecting relative?

I’m a fan of investigations into Victorian crimes and can only applaud Helen Barrell in her presentation of the interlinking stories in Essex. With plenty of pictures, including photographs, illustrations from the magazine Punch as well as the very useful maps that underpin how closely or conversely how far apart the women lived from each other in a time where transport for wives of agricultural labourers wasn’t an option. To give a little perspective the author uses information from her own family in the village of Wix to give some context to the scene of crime. The author uses the Census of 1841 to provide additional evidence as well as the newspapers of the time who went to the same sort of lengths they do nowadays to keep the reader’s attention. It is fascinating to see how years after the poisonings these stories were wheeled out, dusted down complete with inaccuracies and served up fresh for what was sometimes a whole new generation of readers years after the events.

All fascinating stuff but for me, having read quite a large amount about this particular crime over the last couple of years, it is good to have some real cases that directly influenced the government to act in bringing in laws surrounding the sale of poison. Not, as the author is keen to point out that those early laws would have stopped the three women investigated in this book getting their hands on the white stuff.

Poison Panic was the thirty-first read in my Mount TBR Challenge and I’d like to thank the author for a comprehensive visit to Essex to examine these arsenic poisonings in the 1840s.

mount-tbr-2017

 

First Published UK: 30 June 2016
Publisher: Pen and Sword History
No of Pages: 224
Genre: Non-Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US