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

31 Bond Street – Ellen Horan

Historical Crime Fiction
4*s

Last year I was seeking out books covering true crime either as a non-fiction read or those that have used a real crime as a starting point for a fictional novel. Well all the time I’d had this book sitting on my kindle, overlooked! Happily that has now been remedied and this sensational crime set in New York in 1857 has its place in my own spotlight.

Dr Harvey Burdell, a dentist was murdered at 31 Bond Street in the early hours of 31 January 1857, yes over 160 years ago, and yet there is still sufficient interest in the case for writers to hold the interest of their readers. The dentist was found with his throat slit and stab wounds, the fatal blow being one to his heart in his office. He was found later that morning by a servant who raised the alarm. The coroner’s office was called and the entire household were placed under house arrest with no access to legal representation. Before too long there was a forerunner for the role of the murderer and that was the beautiful Emma Cunningham, a widow who claimed the pair had married just two weeks previously but no-one knew because the union was to remain a secret until the spring. Hmm…

The coroner has a vested political interest in declaring the perpetrator and in our fictional tale a brave and principled defense lawyer Henry Clinton comes to Emma Cunningham’s aid. It may or may not surprise you to find with the law and politics having so much in common that the prosecutor at Emma Cunningham’s trial, Abraham Oakley Hall, became the Mayor of New York later on although he had his own political downfall to contend with too!

Ellen Horan plays completely fair with her fictionalised tale clearly indicating the characters who were ‘real’ and also interestingly those characters who played a key part in the trial and are not featured in her fictional account. I say interestingly because when I read up on the crime afterwards, there were some details and characters which seem to have added to the media frenzy which are omitted in the book. Perhaps those didn’t fit the narrative the author was trying to portray which doesn’t just consist of the household but the roots of the Civil War and slavery too. This is as much about the political landscape in New York as it is about this particular murder.

The trial of Emma Cunningham

What is or isn’t true is technically irrelevant when you accept that you are reading a fiction even if they do depict elements of real events, and I’m glad to confirm that the author had me captivated by Emma’s determination to make sure her life, and that of her children, continued as it had before she was widowed at such a young age especially as Dr Harvey Burdell wasn’t quite the upstanding gentleman you’d hope for in a man who probes around in other people’s mouths.

The reader gets an insight into her character by reading about the pair’s early meetings in the fashionable resort of Saratoga Springs and how Emma outwardly acted compared to her inner thoughts – she wanted the best marriage possible in part to ensure her eldest daughter also could make a good marriage and for that she needed a dowry – and so the book flicks backwards to enable us to see the Emma before she was accused of the heinous crime.

31 Bond Street is a great example of a story woven around a group of characters and I was totally absorbed by both Emma’s story and the less morally blurred one of her defense attorney, Henry Clinton. The author really bought the time and place to life with details such as clothing and decoration lending an authenticity to the scenes she created.

31 Bond Street is the seventh book I’ve read for my Mount TBR Challenge 2018 having been purchased in March 2011 so I gain another third of a book token!


First Published UK: 4 May 2010
Publisher: Borough Press
No of Pages: 372
Genre: Historical Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

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

Blackmail, Sex and Lies – Kathryn McMaster

Historical Crime
4*s

There are few stories as old as that of forbidden love and perhaps that is in part why the question of whether Madeline Hamilton Smith really did murder her lover Pierre Emile L’Anglier in Victorian Glasgow or not, has stayed in public consciousness for over one hundred and sixty years.

In Blackmail, Sex and Lies Kathryn McMaster has created a fictionalised tale using the actual letters between the lovers Madeline and Emile, as he was known, as the backbone of the book.

Madeline was part of the upper-middle classes, the daughter of an architect, albeit a man whose origins were far humbler whilst Emile worked as a packing clerk for Huggins a cotton merchants which was not an acceptable match in the year 1855 which is when the two first came into contact with each other. From Kathryn McMaster’s description Emile didn’t display his less than acceptable status, being well-dressed and a bit of a flatterer with his French accent and tales of daring dos in battles in France. The latter is subject to scepticism since Emile L’Anglier actually moved to Glasgow from Jersey in the Channel Islands where he was born on 30 April 1823.

Madeline was a mere 19 years old when she first met and was charmed by the older Emile and the pair initially had clandestine meetings until the wagging tongues of the gossips in Glasgow meant that word reached her mother. Her father banned the young Madeline from meeting or talking to Emile ever again and had she heeded his warnings the tale of course would have been much different.

As it was at the age of twenty-one, Madeline found herself on trial for his murder, the method, good old arsenic, the means a cup of cocoa and the opportunity a meeting to avail herself of very compromising letters which she hoped he would return to her to save her reputation, particularly as she was now engaged to the far more suitable William Harper Minnoch.

The fictionalisation of the story was incredibly convincing, even to this reader who has read a fair few accounts of the alleged  Victorian poisoner. The letters are inserted throughout the text in italics, so although the author has pin-pointed a time where young Madeline realised that Emile actually wanted to marry her so desperately to elevate his social position, the letters with pet-names and seeming promises of devotion are read in the context of a young woman who begins to realise the error she has made.

The book also contains some pictures to illustrate the text so that we see the house where Madeline and Emile exchanged the dynamite love letters through the convenient placement of her bedroom window, the lodging house where Emile met his agonising death and the likeness Madeline had taken to send to her lover.

A crucial element to the fictionalisation of historical murders is to tell a good story and the author certainly managed that. This is the first book I’ve read where the length of time Madeline and Emile carried on their relationship was really bought home to me – one of them was certainly playing the long game. To my immense pleasure what happened post-trial isn’t overlooked either, with enough details given even at this point for further insight into Madeline’s character to be made. The author has created her characters, added a plausible plot based on historical fact and woven that together creating the events, some of which are mentioned in the letters and others that must be entirely of her imagination and yet, so believable.

Did Madeline Smith murder her lover? I don’t think we will ever know and although the author’s explanation is incredibly convincing, even she can’t absolutely rehabilitate this young woman who behaved shockingly given the mores of the time.

For those who buy the kindle version of Blackmail, Sex and Lies, there is an opportunity to receive the full transcripts of the letters sent in the main by Madeline, Emile’s return post not having survived. Those that had envelopes with postmarks (although there is some doubt about whether the letters were returned to the correct envelopes have the added details of when they were posted and delivered which is enlightening as to the efficiency of the Victorian postal service! This collection is a lovely postscript to the book.

This is the second book of the year in my Mount TBR Challenge 2018, and since I bought my copy of Blackmail, Sex and Lies in December 2017 is also worth another third of a book token!

First Published UK: 30 August 2017
Publisher: Drama Llama Press
No of Pages: 198
Genre: Historical Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Books I’ve read that reference Madeline Smith

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup
A Gallery of Poisoners by Adrian Vincent
The Poison Principle by Gail Bell
The Secret Poisoner by Linda Stratmann
Victorian Murderesses by Mary S. Hartman

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

Historical Fiction
4*s

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

On 4 August 1892 Andrew and Abby Borden were brutally murdered in their own home where they lived with Andrew’s daughters Lizzie and Emma and their housemaid Bridget. Lizzie was put on trial for their murder but was exonerated of the crime at her trial three months later.

Sarah Schmidt has recreated the scene on the morning of the murder, and in the months leading up to it using four different narrators: Lizzie, Bridget, Emma and the mystery character Benjamin. These four give us different views of a household which was undoubtedly full of tension with Lizzie and Emma only deigning to call Abby, Mrs Borden.
The thing that struck me most was how young Lizzie’s character seemed to be. The voice is actually a woman in her thirties, unmarried in an age where that was unusual, but she sounds far more like a petulant child. This just adds to the weird atmosphere recreated by Sarah Schmidt with many references to smells and tastes, particularly of the mutton stew which was endlessly reheated. Was this the cause of the sickness that all the members of the household, bar Lizzie were afflicted with? Or was the cause something more sinister? The stickiness of the day, the juiciness of the endless pears that were consumed from the arbour and the meticulous locking of the doors even during the daytime all add to the feeling of claustrophobia that set this household in Fall River, Massachusetts from the rest of the world.

All the best known details of the investigation into the brutal slaying of Mr and Mrs Borden are included, some in the present day narrative which runs throughout the book, some in the flashbacks that give the background to past conflicts that are still running, no doubt because the two daughters should have left long ago. We are given some insight as to why Emma stayed, which was due to the unnaturally symbiotic relationship with Lizzie, but no clue was offered as to why none of the local men had asked for Lizzie’s hand in marriage.

The style of writing took a little while to acclimatise to, but once I got into the stride of the book I was eager to see what theories as to what happened on that fateful day the author would propose and I’m glad to say that no single theory held sway over another, with Sarah Schmidt giving the reader the chance to come to their own conclusions based on the evidence produced.

I have to admit I only really sympathised with one of the characters who narrates this story and that was Bridget, the Irish housemaid who crossed the ocean for a better life and has been saving money to return home to her family but maybe that was because she had the most ‘normal’ of voices. Andrew is presented through the eyes of all of the characters as a harsh father and Abby as a spiteful and bitter step-mother. The undercurrents of distrust and outright hostility are then thrown into focus by the appearance of John Morse, the brother of the Sarah, Andrew Borden’s first wife and mother to Emma and Lizzie. In some ways by the time I completed the book, whoever the murderer was, the deaths seem almost inevitable.

In conclusion See What I Have Done is an unusual and fascinating read, but far from a comfortably one; the writing so vivid I feared sensory overload and as a result I foretell a pearless future for this reader!

First Published UK: 2 May 2017
Publisher: Tinder Press
No of Pages: 336
Genre: Historical Fiction– True Crime
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 Book Review, Books I have read

The Blood Card – Elly Griffiths

Historical Crime Fiction 4*s
Historical Crime Fiction
4*s

When Colonel Peter Cartwright, their commander from the war, is found dead with the ace of hearts, the blood card, next to him Max Mephisto and DI Edgar Stephens are summoned to London and put in charge of a secret investigation into his death.

Racing back to his current investigation in Brighton where Edgar is probing the mysterious death of fortune teller Madame Zabini he is soon off on his first aeroplane trip to New York, a fifteen hour journey on the trail of the murderer.

The links to the world of the theatre are really strong in this, the third outing of Stephens and Mephsito and reach back in time. Max and Edgar are tracking down some old-timers from the world of the variety shows which are now beginning to fear their fate with the advent of television. And it is time to be worried with a terrific surge in families buying sets to watch the Queen’s Coronation. Max was unable to take the trip to New York as he has dipped his toe into the world of television and is performing a magic show live for the small screen, a show that will follow the main event of the day. His new agent Joe Passolini has promised that millions will watch Those Were The Days, the greatest variety show to reach into the drawing rooms of the UK.

The two plots, one dealing with deaths of those linked to the theatre and another strand devoted to the gypsy’s who deliver the entertainment on the pier. Stephens and his Sergeants Bob Willis and Emma Holmes are far from convinced that Madame Zabini’s death was suicide, as Bob succinctly put it:

‘You’d think, being psychic, she’d know if someone was going to do her in’

When her son receives a letter asking him to ask Stephens what the Magic Men knew, the operation he was part of with Max during the war, the feeling that something was not quite right just intensifies. The problem is apart from handing over the note the family aren’t terribly forthcoming, having an aversion to the police.

My love of these two crime fighters hasn’t abated one little bit and this proved to be a fun read, all deaths happen ‘off-page’ to cause minimum distress to the reader. The plot has an old-fashioned feel to it, matching the time period perfectly, consisting of cryptic crossword puzzles and a network of characters where even the most shadowy, could be kindly be described as ‘misunderstood’ That’s not to imply there isn’t any action, there is, and the descriptions are brilliant. The portrayal of the build up and ultimately to the day of the coronation itself, one full of excitement as the new Elizabethan age dawned was fantastic I felt I was right there with the people who partied despite the rationing, which was still in place, and shows went on to please the new audience in front of their televisions.

Elly Griffiths manages to sneak plenty of historical facts into this engaging and evocative mystery of an era that doesn’t get as much exposure as the preceding decades. She effortlessly transports us to the time and I’m delighted that her female characters are so strong despite being true to their time. For those who have read the previous books, it is an absolute delight to see the character progression, the bonds that have been forged in times of adversity lending a depth to such a fun read. So it isn’t only long live the Queen but long live Max Mephisto and DI Edgar Stephens!

I was delighted to receive an advance review copy of this book ahead of publication next week and this review is my thanks to the publishers Quercus Books, and of course the fabulous Elly Griffiths.

Published UK: 3 November 2016
Publisher: Quercus Books
No of Pages: 382
Genre: Historical Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Max Mephisto & DI Edgar Stephens Series

The Zig-Zag Girl
Smoke and Mirrors

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Kill Fee – Fiona Veitch Smith

Historical Crime Fiction 4*s
Historical Crime Fiction
4*s

Having fallen a little bit in love with Poppy Denby in her first outing, The Jazz Files I was thrilled to see that the author had come up with another mystery for this enterprising journalist to solve.

The story itself is set mainly at places in and around Fleet Street, London where Poppy now has the grand title Arts and Entertainment Editor at The Daily Globe. The time is 1920 and there is a fabulous exhibition at Crystal Palace displaying Russian Art. Poppy is there covering the journalism and her boyfriend Daniel is there to take the photographs. With Poppy’s artistic friends, including the actress Delilah Marconi, all in attendance suddenly a gunshot is heard and when order is restored a valuable piece of art has disappeared.

You see when I said the story was mainly set in London, parts of it are seen in flashback style to the time of the Russian revolution some three years previously. Not so much in the way of parties in evidence in this part of the book but what links the two, apart from the obvious Russian link, is the bravery and tenacity of the characters.

In many way these books are a bit of a romp, with plenty of danger for Poppy to extract herself from, the dead bodies in true Golden Age style not belonging to anyone who will be mourned too long or too hard, or to characters who we haven’t even got to know before they are deceased. But the author has gone to a great deal of trouble to realistically create the time period, and the research underpinning it all is factual (and where it is not, Fiona Veitch Smith confesses to some elastic timings at the end). Better still for those of us whose knowledge of the Russian Revolution there is a handy foreword to give some idea of who the White Russians were and how they differed to the Red Russians.

The plotting was good and far more complex than the very attractive cover belies and the pace was fairly fast so you do need to concentrate to keep up with all the potential killers, thieves and spies that litter the pages of The Kill Fee, the title taken from the amount of money that newspaper mogul Rollo is offered to kill a story – the question is not only should he but even if he does, how many people know the truth – the last thing Rollo wants if for his rivals to steal the story.

The skill the author has is getting in the period details without the research overshadowing the storyline and she’s good. Those little details such as the music that was played, the fashionable items of the day and the food that was eaten are all sparingly yet effectively used, but what is superbly done is the seemingly contemporary view when for instance Poppy notices that Ye Olde Cock Tavern was a favourite of both Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys. All of this brings the scenes to life and offsets the more bizarre scenarios that beset our young heroine.

With the relationships and the background to how Poppy became a journalist held in the first book, I’m not sure how well this would work as a stand-alone read so I suggest if you are tempted to start at the beginning.

I’d like to say thank you to the publishers Lion Fiction for allowing me to read a copy of this book ahead of the publication day of tomorrow, 16 September 2016.

First Published UK: 16 September 2016
Publisher: Lion Fiction
No of Pages: 320
Genre: Historical Crime Fiction Series
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2016, Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Curious Habits of Doctor Adams – Jane Robins #20booksofsummer

Book 5

Non-Fiction 5*s
Non-Fiction
5*s

Oh how I love a well-researched piece of historical crime and was very impressed by this author’s account of George Smith the ‘Brides in the Bath’ murderer and Dr Spilsbury who was an expert witness at this man’s trial in her book The Magnificent Spilsbury and the case of The Brides in the Bath. It was only natural then to seek out this, her next book about a Doctor who was a suspected serial killer.

John Bodkin Adams was born in Ireland, a God-fearing man born of devout parents and moved to Eastbourne with his sister and mother in 1922 where he took up a post as a General Practitioner. It must be remembered that these were the days before the NHS and so the practice was populated by the wealthier patient than a typical GP would see these days. He soon made his mark as a doctor who would turn out at any time of the day or night to attend his wealthy patients. So fond of them, especially the elder ladies, was he, that he often paid visits whether his attendance was needed or not. Jane Robins gives us an account of his years in practice, including his rather dire performance as an anaesthetist at the local hospital.

As interesting as this background is of course I wanted to know about the investigation and subsequent trial. It all started in July 1956 Eastbourne Police received a call about the death of one Gertrude known as Bobbie Hullett who had died, unexpectedly whilst in Dr Adams care, she was only 50 years old. A month later the Metropolitan Police took over from the local force. Detective Superintendent Herbert Hannam and Detective Sergeant Charles Hewett interviewed many residents of genteel Eastbourne where all manner of rumours were uncovered reaching back to the 1930s of inheritance of money and cars and other strange bequests but equally there were testimonials from those who adored the portly doctor. So death certificates were examined, as were wills because Hannam was convinced that Dr Adams was killing for cash and so began the laborious task of sifting through the paper trail.

Jane Robins is brilliant at presenting the facts and opposing views of this trial without seemingly steering the reader’s opinion one way or another for the bulk of the book. This could have been really heavy going with prescriptions for heroin, morphine and other sedatives frequently appearing as evidence along with bequests or presents of the odd gold pen here or a Rolls Royce there and a seemingly never-ending ream of elderly ladies doting on Dr Adams, but it wasn’t I just became more and more fascinated by the tale told complete with contemporary news stories and advertisements and a brilliant reconstruction of the world of the genteel inhabitants of Eastbourne at that time. All of this served to increase my interest in the hidden character of the man. And that is where the author comes into her own when at the end of the book, after the trial and when life in Eastbourne had recovered from all the excitement, she examined the psyche of the Doctor and presented her conclusions, with the help of a couple of expert witnesses of her own.

An absolutely brilliant read which I can’t recommend enough and for those of us who remember the more recent trial and conviction of Dr Harold Shipman, there are plenty of comparisons to be made.

This was addition to my 20 Books of Summer 2016 Challenge, and one I certainly won’t forget in a hurry.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Mrs Maybrick – Victoria Blake

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

I can’t write this review without stating how attractive this little book is being small and almost square it is really quite sweet, unlike its contents of course! So much so that I instantly felt an urge to collect others in this series on appearances alone and then I read it, and if the others are as well researched and clearly set out as this one, well I will need to fill an entire shelf with them!

I chose this book on the advice of the author when she mentioned Florence Maybrick in the comments section of my review of The Last Woman Hanged, the subject of that study was Louisa Collins who was accused of murdering two husbands in New South Wales in 1889. Florence Maybrick underwent her trial for the murder of her husband James Maybrick in August of the same year, the poison was the same, arsenic. I knew a little about Florence’s trial from the splendid read which was Victorian Murderesses but wanted to see what Victoria Blake would add. Quite a lot it would seem and even better at the end of the book she presents the arguments for and against on whether Florence was guilty as charged. I like a woman who stands by her research and the author didn’t disappoint putting her hat into the ring – which one you’ll have to read the book and find out for yourself.

Within the 100 plus pages the information is densely packed with information including the background to the case, the state of the Maybrick’s marriage, the scheming servants and the two-faced friends all get as thorough examination as the facts will allow. The book has two sets of plates full of pictures of not only the key players in this drama but some of the documents used to convict Florence too.

It is interesting to read that there were many women who wrote to the papers about Florence Maybrick as they did for Louisa Collins on the other side of the world only months earlier. The same complaints were made in that Florence was being tried by and judged by men, women not being allowed to vote at this time, let alone sit on a jury! There also appears to have been some similar conviction on the part of the doctors and the police that Florence was guilty giving weight to the feeling that the trial wasn’t fair and the doubts about the poison, and whether it was poison raged just as fiercely in Liverpool in 1889 as they had in Australia. Perhaps the fears of the population that those weaker than them could easily procure the means to kill them in extreme agony had a part to play in both women’s trials or perhaps this was seen to be an easy way to get out of a marriage in a time when options were limited? Either way this makes for fascinating and informative reading.

Learn more about Victoria Blake on her blog here

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

Out of the Silence – Wendy James

Historical Fiction  5*'s
Historical Fiction
5*’s

I love history, particularly social history that explores the lives of women, and this book fits really well into this area of interest. Wendy James has taken the real life story of a young girl named Maggie Heffernan who lived in Australia at the turn of the twentieth century and added a fictional background to the crime she was tried for. To complement Maggie’s story we also have Elizabeth Hamilton’s story, a slightly older woman, an unwilling spinster, who works as a governess and later at a school run by Vida Goldstein. For those of you who know as little about Australian history as I do, in 1903, Vida Goldstein was the first woman in the British Empire to stand for election in a national parliament, woman having been given the vote much earlier in Australia than either the UK or the US. As Elizabeth’s story unfolds she gives an insight into the suffragette movement in Australia at this time as seen through a bystanders view rather than with the full force of Vida’s passion for the cause.

Maggie’s story is told in the first person and follows her movement from eldest daughter helping her rather cold mother out at home in the fabulously named Dederang, to being shipped off to the nearby town of Yackandandah to help out relations before moving away on her own accord gaining a permanent position as a servant. All through her narrative I knew that her love affair with Jack Hardy was doomed and yet I still hoped that the ending would be different so affected was I by the voice Wendy James gave her.

Being caught out in this dress is shame enough, but just as he comes by I am squeezed right down the front of the cart, poking about as if hunting for something or other, so he comes upon me unawares an when he asks, ‘Is everything all right miss? Can I help you with anything?’ I am not expecting it and hit my shin hard on the bench.
When I have recovered enough to speak, I ask him what he thinks he is doing, what sort of fool is he to come creeping up on a person in such a way?
‘My apologies, miss,’ he says, ‘but I wouldn’t say I was creeping – this is a public path, y’know, an thee was nowhere else for me to walk. I just thought you might have been in some difficulty, being all doubled over like that…’
‘It was nothing,’ I tell him. ‘I had… dropped my glove, is all, an was hunting for it.’ This is so plainly a tale – it is as warm a day as we ever get an there’s not a single glove in evidence – that I add in a tone that Ma would be proud of, ‘Which a person’s got a perfect right to do without being frightened out of her wits by a complete stranger.’

Elizabeth’s story is told through her journal entries and letters to her brother who is in New York, far away from their birthplace in Edinburgh, this is much drier in tone and consequently it took longer for me to get as emotionally involved in her story, which although much less dramatic than Maggie’s, illustrates how for many women the only way they would feel fulfilled was to marry but Elizabeth’s fiancé had died in a tragic accident shortly before she moved to Melbourne. Elizabeth’s story also gives us the insight into Vida’s life, a woman who has decided that improving the lives of woman and children was her goal and this couldn’t be combined with marriage. In fact all three women were fighting against not only circumstance but the freedom to have any real choices about their lives.

9 May

First typing class today. Girls very enthusiastic. Only one parent objecting to it calling it an unnecessary evil. The same parent, incidentally, who opposed his daughter’s algebra lessons. The girls father is a member of the lower house, formerly a grocer who mae his fortune during the gold rush. She tells us he can’t see the point (and nor can she for that matter). Why train her to do things she’ll never need? not as if she’ll ever have to earn her living he says. Which is fortunate, really… 

These lives collide when Maggie is arrested and Vida organised a campaign both during and after the trial which successfully proved to her country that she was able to run such a sustained media blitz, helped by the fact that she didn’t fit the stereotypical view of a suffragette. With Elizabeth on hand to help Vida out with the campaign and accompanying her on visits to Maggie these three women, with very different backgrounds meet.

Wendy James doesn’t judge any of the three women featured in this book, although the facts are overlaid with fiction and maybe Maggie’s story is given the most positive spin possible, it was still eminently believable and I didn’t get the feeling that sometimes happens in these types of books, that the author wanted me to come to a certain conclusion, rather she had confidence that her story was enough and the reader could make their own mind up about the choices made by each of the women.

I can’t wait to read more books by Wendy James, this is easily my favourite read of the year so far, admittedly aided by my keen interest in the subject matter but definitely enhanced by the sheer quality of the writing.

More Historical Crime

The Murder Tree – Alan Veale
Not Guilty – Christine Gardner
Death at the Priory – James Ruddick
Quiet Dell – Jayne Anne Phillips

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

The Magnificent Spilsbury and the case of The Brides In The Bath – Jane Robins

Non-Fiction Historical Crime 5*'s
Non-Fiction Historical Crime
5*’s

This book is about Bernard Spilsbury a forensic pathologist whose scientific mind was compared to that of the famous detective Sherlock Holmes through his appearances at murder trials as an expert witness in Edwardian Britain.

Dr Spilsbury  The Guardian
Dr Spilsbury
The Guardian

As a backdrop to the man himself, Jane Robins retraces the story of three suspected murders known at the time as The Brides In The Bath because in each case the woman in question had been found dead in the bath shortly after being married. In the case of the first two women the deaths were put down to fitting or fainting whilst bathing, but when the father of one of these women read a newspaper article about a very similar death he campaigned to Inspector Neil to investigate. In turn Neil turned to Spilsbury, but there was one problem, murder by drowning is unusual, the only records were the pitiful bundles where mothers had murdered their offspring. That wasn’t to stop Spilsbury though, he worked night and day testing his ideas, either in the mortuary or in the lab in his house and soon bodies were exhumed and theories espoused. In one chilling experiment to work out how the women could have been killed without a struggle female swimmers dressed in bathing costumes were recruited for experimentation.

She slipped under easily, but to me, who was closely watching, she seemed to make no movement. Suddenly I gripped her arm, it was limp. With a shout I tugged at her arm-pit and raised her head above the water It fell over to one side. She was unconscious. For nearly half an hour my detectives and I worked away at her with artificial respiration and restoratives. Things began to look serious, and then a quick change began to take place, and her pretty face began to take on the bloom of young healthy womanhood. It had given us all a turn, so practical demonstrations in baths were from that moment promptly discontinued.

Thank goodness for that!

Jane Robins does far more than simply recount the murders of the women in question though, with a chapter devoted to each of the murder victims, she also seeks to explain why they would have married a man so quickly and then proceeded to acquiesce so totally to their husband’s demands, such as visiting a doctor with symptoms of a headache, writing letters to their families which had clearly been dictated and agreeing to bathe in a boarding house without securing the door. The answer proposed is the need for marriage was at the forefront of every woman’s mind, there was a shortage of men even before the First World War and the need to keep that man, the place woman held in society and in part the way the man George Joseph Smith behaved, some suggested his approach was hypnotic.

George Joseph Smith  Watford Observer
George Joseph Smith
Watford Observer

Of course the subject of the book didn’t just spring to prominence as a forensic expert, Jane Robbins also uses the case of Dr Crippen who was tried for murder in 1910 to illustrate how Spilsbury became so prominent in the field.

Under cross-examination, Spilsbury supported Augustus Pepper, stating that the person who had removed the viscera ‘must have had considerable dexterity and considerable anatomical knowledge’…. Re-examined by the prosecution he said, loud and clear: ‘It is beyond doubt that this is a scar…. There is my opinion, no room for doubt that the mark was a scar’

It was this trial that really sealed the role of the medical expert in criminal trials of this nature and although with the advances in science over the last one hundred years may have thrown some doubt on Spilsbury’s assertion, in this case a man was hanged on his evidence.

 

Wikipedia
Dr Crippen Wikipedia

This is a fascinating book following the investigations into two major trials in the early part of the twentieth century when forensic evidence was being used for the first time. This, as pointed out by Jane Robins, dovetailed neatly with the popularity of a new type of fictional detective, the esteemed and scientifically minded Sherlock Holmes. From this time on, murderers could no longer rely on luck to escape the law, science was allowing the victims a voice and men like Spilsbury were able to read the clues left behind. I suspect from reading this book that Bernard Spilsbury as well as being incredibly dedicated to his role got something of an ego boost from the unusual type of fame it afforded him.

I recommend this book to any lover of historical true crime, Jane Robins writes in an accessible way neatly separating the book into chapters complemented by a light historical lesson in the changes that this period was experiencing.