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

The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane – Jane Housham

Non-Fiction Crime 5*s
Non-Fiction Crime

When I saw that this book was going to be published on 3 November 2016 way back in August my interest was piqued and I took the bold step of telling the publishers riverrun so, they in turn kindly supplied me with copy.

On 13 April 1866 on Carr’s Hill, Gateshead five year old Sarah Melvin disappeared, only for her body to be discovered later by a couple going to the local public house. The crime was a brutal one, the facts horrifying, even at a distance of 150 years but Jane Housham, having come across the case in the course of tracing her family history decided to use it as a springboard to examine not only the crime itself, but the psyche of the accused, the justice system and how the insane were treated in the mid-Victorian age.

The book opens with the background to the case, the journey that young Sarah Melvin is known to have taken on the day of her murder travelling to visit her father who was out seeking work. We are treated to the work of the police following the discovery of the body, its removal to the local inn, as was the custom in those days, and later to her mother’s house where an autopsy was held on the table. The rudiments of forensics were just being employed but this was as far removed from the strict chain of evidence used these days as you can get.

Unlike some historical true crime books, Jane Housham doesn’t re-examine the evidence to put forward a theory of another killer than that tried for the crime, instead she has carried out extensive research into what the make-up of the killer was. Why did he commit such a terrible crime? Was he insane? What she finds isn’t necessarily what we would expect from Victorian justice, a revelation indeed.

Jane Housham uses the contemporary media from that time, she looks at other crimes that were committed on and around Carr’s Hill within a similar time period. She also gives us a flavour of the population of the time, of the haves and the have-nots and really conjures up details of the place where the crime was committed in astonishing detail especially as the area has changed beyond recognition in the intervening years. The log books detailing the prisoner’s incarceration are also provided as well as the few remaining letters surviving from that time which indicate the level of his education as well as the workings of his mind.

Books of this nature which have to be so rigorously researched can often be quite dry as the author seeks to educate the reader, not this one, the prose is lively the tone even without a hint of condescension, the facts are displayed, the author unafraid to pose an opinion and when she is unsure of a statement she’s made, says so. Why the doubts? Because she accepts that at such a distance in time, it is impossible to really know what happened. She has a number of documents, a huge amount of knowledge, but of course there are gaps, the author wasn’t stood in the courtroom listening to the evidence although she has done a good job of spotting the discrepancies in the newspaper reporting, and rectifying some of the minor confusion caused all these years later.

This was a fascinating read, particularly for those readers who like me, are interested in Victorian provision of the criminally insane. To have the words written by those doctors who had not quite relinquished the hold of phrenology but are doing their best to embrace the new liberal ideas surrounding psychiatry at this time, and then in turn reading this  in relation to a real case, shows the practical application of thinking in a way the theory espoused at the time never can.

I am truly grateful for the opportunity to read this book, it was enlightening and despite the inevitable feeling of voyeurism in revisiting such a crime, no matter how long ago it occurred. The sheer amount of information to be gleaned from this book on a number of different related subjects was enormous but done in such a clear-sighted manner that made these facts easy to absorb and build upon. I definitely think the author hit her brief of examining the shift in ideas about insanity at this time, illustrating justice in action and sadly the life of a killer, his family and of course poor little Sarah Melvin whose life was cut short.

First Published UK: 3 November 2016
Publisher: Riverrun
No of Pages: 368
Genre: Historical True Crime
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Challenge

The Medea Complex – Rachel Florence Roberts

Historical Crime 4*'s
Historical Crime

The beginning of this book took me by surprise, for a horrible moment I thought this was going to be a poorly researched voyage into the late nineteenth century; I was wrong, this book was a mixture of authentic details of life in the changing world of lunatic asylums along with a gripping mystery about what really happened on the fateful day when Lady Anne Stanbury killed her son. So why my initial hesitation? The language used was more modern than would usually be found in historical novels which I initially found quite off-putting. Anne uses colourful language, but she was incarcerated for being insane so this is entirely fitting with the illness and later on as she makes steps towards recovery the use of profanities declines.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints including her Dr George Savage’s daily notes on his wealthy patient. Dr Savage is a leading psychiatrist at Bethlem Royal Hospital where he alone can be the one to free Anne from the hospital. The doctor is walking a thin line, as in his eagerness to see Anne become well enough to leave the hospital he starts counselling her husband, Edgar. Edgar is using alcohol as a crutch as he struggles with opposing emotions about his wife and needs all the help he can get!

For the reader who enjoys their historical mysteries to be well-plotted with a firm grip on the newest ideas of the times this is well worth a read. I confess that I had some quibbles about the language used and minor historical facts at the crux of this book were well researched providing an enjoyable read on a subject rarely covered.

When Rachel emailed me about this book I was intrigued. I suspect I know more than most people about infanticide and mental illness during this period as I was a proof-reader for my daughter’s dissertation on this very subject. As in many areas I became interested in the books and articles she carted backwards and forwards to university and soon progressed to on-line historical newspapers which covered these tragic cases. One of the related subjects that I picked up along the way was that of baby-farming. Amelia Dyer the chief perpetrator makes an appearance in the Medea Complex and although I didn’t quite agree with the context it did go some way to sum up the complex morality in late Victorian England which is neatly echoed by this accomplished debut.

I received a free copy of this book from the author in return for this honest review.

Related books click on the covers to read my reviews

Caversham Lock

The Ghost of Lily Painter

Caversham Lock
The Ghost of Lily Painter
Amelia Dyer: The Woman Who Murdered Babies for Money

The Medea Complex was my fifth read for the COYER challenge
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