Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2018

Crippen: A Novel of Murder – John Boyne

Historical Crime Fiction
4*s

This is now the third book I’ve read by this author and Crippen is a fictionalised version of the case of Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen and the murder of his wife of which he was convicted and hanged in 1910.

It could be said that when you know the ending to a story that it will remove all suspense from the reading (or in my case listening) but this book defies that notion. Yes, I knew that Hawley Crippen’s wife Cora was poisoned then dismembered and her torso found under the floor of the cellar of 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Camden and having a somewhat grisly nature I know quite a bit about the events that are considered to lead up to the discovery, but to say I wasn’t captivated by John Boyne’s interpretation and imagination, would be an outright lie.

The story takes us back to Crippen’s earliest days where it appears John Boyne has invented quite a bit to create the most sympathetic view of the child growing into a man who longs to be a doctor. However the story also flips forwards in time to the ship the SS Montrose where John Robinson and his seventeen year old son Edmund board in Antwerp to make the journey to Canada to start a new life. John Robinson is a Doctor and the pair travel first class.

The journey across the Atlantic was probably my favourite part of the whole book. The passengers included the most hideous Antonia Drake and her spoilt daughter Victoria as well as the far more balanced Frenchman Mathieu Zela travelling with his nephew and the unassuming Martha Hayes. There are moments of almost farcical nature as despite the plan to keep a low profile John Robinson is in high demand to socialise with his fellow passengers, as is young Edmund.

Things weren’t an awful lot better in the past as we follow Crippen through his apprenticeship in an abattoir to fund his medical diplomas, his first marriage and the beginning of his relationship with Cora, a music hall performer who he eventually moves to England with. I’ve condensed this to a few sentences but the author carefully lays the basis for the part that all the readers know is on the way, and his answer to the question what led the mild mannered Crippen to butcher Cora and then recklessly move his lover, Ethel Le Neve into Hilltop Crescent? Once again along this tour we meet some truly memorable characters, most of them pretty awful but, oh so entertaining for being so. What struck me most was how much the social rules of the time seem to have played a part in the actual discovery of the murder and the interaction between the friend who first reported her suspicions to the hapless constable at Scotland Yard was one of my favourite scenes.

So yes there is tension, as much about how having started the story with the underdog Crippen we were going to get to the finale of the hanging. I’m not going to dissect this part but I for one wasn’t wholly convinced by the explanation, but it was a clever route to take and therefore bearing in mind this is a fictionalised tale, albeit with some of the key players, including Inspector Dew, the plotting was in place so it didn’t come out of nowhere; In short if I didn’t have my own views it was plausible. But most of all the and the journey both on land and at sea was exceptionally entertaining. The characters from the ship’s crew to the minor players really do carry this story especially as we all know the ending!

This isn’t a book to read if you want the absolute facts of the case, but if you want to be entertained this is the perfect platform to either take a look at Crippen from a slightly different angle, or simply to read a gripping tale.

I listened to this book in audio format, it had been on my TBR since January 2016 but regular readers will know i repeatedly struggled with listening rather than reading. I’m glad to say this book proved I could do it and the day it ended when I was only halfway through my walk home, I felt utterly bereft after all Crippen had accompanied me on walks and whilst knitting over a total of 17 hours and 43 minutes and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it aided by the wonderful narration by James Daniel Wilson.

This is the second fictionalised story I’ve read about this case, Martin Edwards wrote his version called Dancing for the Hangman which I  highly recommend.

First Published UK: 2004
Publisher: Penguin
No of Pages: 512
Genre: Historical Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

 

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

A Gallery of Poisoners – Adrian Vincent

Non-Fiction 4*s
Non-Fiction
4*s

Well this collection of thirteen poisoners was a good way to round off a year that has seen me fascinated with the poisoner. Adrian Vincent has found a selection of those who chose poison as a way of getting rid of unwanted people in the UK and the US. This book was originally published in 1993 but has recently been republished by Endeavour Press.

Many of my favourites, including Florence Maybrick are included along with some that I hadn’t come across before. Each murderer, or more accurately suspected murderer is given a short chapter that goes into varying amounts of detail of their crime and punishment.

In order of appearance the poisoners featured are:

Frederick Seddon (1912)
Tillie Gburek (1921 USA)
Everitt Applegate and Mary Creighton (1936 USA)
Mrs Florence Maybrick (1889)
Jean Pierre Vaquier (1924)
Graham Young (1972)
Adeline Bartlett (1886)
Roland Molineux (1889 USA)
Harold Greenwood (1929)
Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen (1910)
Mary Ann Cotton (1873)
Madeline Smith (1857)
Nurse Waddingham (1936)

The author mentions famous expert witnesses, my favourite Bernard Spilsbury appears three of the trials and he also lists the crown prosecutor, the defence counsel and the judge in many of the trials. Sometimes an attorney who appears as junior counsel in one trial is promoted to become chief counsel at a later date, all of which a poisoner nerd like myself found fascinating. It’s like following these men through their careers as an aside to the individual crimes most of which were committed for love or money.

The author has a somewhat off-hand but insightful tone which I have to confess made me smile more than once, as illustration I am using his insight into Jean Pierre Vaquier, a new-to-me poisoner who struck in 1924 in Byfleet Surrey at the local tavern, the Blue Anchor.

Jean Pierre visits a chemist in London for strychnine which he claimed was for his wireless experiments:

‘But you will have to sign the poison book’
Vaquier signed the book J. Wanker, an odd choice for a false name. But it raised no eyebrows from Mr Bland, who gave Vaquier the strychnine without further comment.

Poor Mr Jones was found to have died of strychnine poisoning and Dr Carle informed the police. Our esteemed author summed up the questioning of Vaquier:

At this stage did Vaquier become alarmed by the questioning the police were taking? Not in the slightest. Finding himself in the limelight, Vaquier blossomed like a well-watered flower, happily posing for the photographers when he left the police station.

Adrian Vincent informs us that Vaquier practically took over his own defence when he came to the dock seemingly oblivious to Justice Avory’s pained looks and sums up:

It says much for British justice that all this nonsense was listened to in silence, rather than being greeted with howls of derision, as it might well have been elsewhere.

For these asides alone, I loved the book. No death is so tragic that Adrian Vincent can’t add a little quip about some aspect that brings some levity to the proceedings.

The only downside to such an array of poisoners is that although we have an outline of the cases, there is no deep analysis or thread that examines causes, details the forensic breakthroughs or examines changes in the law that has more or less consigned this method of murder to the history books. Nothing links the cases involved beyond the fact that all those featured either chose to, or were accused of, bumping someone off with poison, the top choice being good old arsenic.

I was lucky enough to be given a copy of this book by the publishers Endeavour Press. This review is my thanks to them and the author for a jolly romp through the poisoners that formerly walked the earth.

First Published UK: 1993
Publisher: Endeavour Press
No of Pages: 250
Genre: Non-Fiction – Historical True Crime
Amazon UK
Amazon US

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

Dancing for the Hangman – Martin Edwards

20 books of summer logo

Crime Fiction 5*s
Historical Crime Fiction
5*s

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!