Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Mile End Murder – Sinclair McKay

Non-Fiction
4*s

Sinclair McKay re-examines a crime right at the heart of the Victorian era in 1860. A murder that was committed against an elderly woman in her own home in the East End of London.

Mrs Emsley was no cuddly granny-type lady though, she was a miser worthy of a part in one of Charles Dickens (more of him later) novels. Born in the East End of London under the bells of St Anne’s in Stepney she came from humble beginnings but by the time she met her end she’d been married twice and amassed an enormous amount of wealth in the form of housing stock. Although she employed some men to collect her substantial rents she also visited the hovels packed with families who lived close by to her own home, not known for her compassion she would frequently evict her struggling tenants if they were even a week behind with their payments. She was therefore fairly universally disliked. All in all the best kind of murder victim for a good mystery; anyone and everyone can be a suspect.

                      Mary Emsley clutching a role of wallpaper

Mrs Emsley had bought some wallpaper which she was attempting to sell and so it came to be that her badly bludgeoned body was found in her house with the rolls of precious wallpaper close by. For a woman known to be suspicious of visitors the lack of forced entry suggests that she admitted her killer herself. The only clue was a a bloody footprint on the landing when the body was discovered by one of her rent collectors by which time it had attracted some maggots for good measure!

The police were called and soon fixed on a suspect and indeed this man was hung for the crimes committed. Unsurprisingly, and those of you who have read my previous reviews of Victorian true crimes will also detect a theme developing here, dear old Charles Dickens was apparently one of the 20,000 people who attended the public hanging while of course decrying the ghoulishness of those citizens eager for a bit of excitement.

In a twist to the tale in 1901 Arthur Conan Doyle took a look at the case as he wasn’t sure that the man who hung deserved his fate, his thoughts were published as a serialised book The Debatable Case Of Mrs. Emsley. In 2017 Sinclair McKay took up the baton and went back to the evidence and builds a case for another perpetrator entirely.

This is an incredibly readable book of the type I enjoy most in this sub-genre; Sinclair McKay keeps a running commentary of the social history alongside the background to the victim, the suspect and the resultant trial and hanging. There is also a substantial information on how relatives came out of the woodwork to claim her fortune and to keep it out of the hands of Queen Victoria since our miserly widow had not made a will.

I found it a fascinating read and whilst I have to admit that the author has perhaps hit upon a more worthy suspect than that of the police, I wasn’t altogether convinced that he had a watertight case either, but coming up with a credible alternative at the distance of more than 150 years is no mean feat.

I’d like to thank the publishers Aurum Press for allowing me to read a copy of The Mile End Murder and for Sinclair McKay who transported me back to a darker, dingier and poverty ridden East End of London.

First Published UK: 7 September 2017
Publisher: Aurum Press
No of Pages: 320
Genre: Non Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

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

The Killing of Georgie Moore – Colin Evans

Non-Fiction
5*s

Another Victorian true crime this time entirely factual using evidence from the trial of Esther Pay who stood trial for the murder of seven-year old Georgie Moore.

I’m not going to rehash the entire sequence of events, or the outcome of the trial, if you want to know you should really read this for yourself. Instead, having read a fair few of this type of non-fiction reads I’m going to explain quite why this one was awarded the full five stars.

To understand the trial the reader needs to have some idea of the setting, the prime players in the crime, and their circumstances. The setting of course when dealing with historical crimes needs to accurately reconstruct the time period. And Colin Evans did this so well. In short Georgie’s father Stephen is a cad. He has seduced women up and down the country and the author explains how, contrary to our view of the Victorians this was entirely feasible with one in three marriages in the lower classes being undertaken while the woman was pregnant. Esther Pay,the accused by contrast had no children but she did have a husband who was fond of drink and routinely beat her, again not so uncommon for the times. We learn about the multiple dwellings of the key players and their interactions and pastimes. We are also treated to the background of the Police at the time, the difference between those in plain clothes and those in uniform along with their recent humiliation at the hands of the press. All of this is, in my view, essential to the reader to fully understand the crime and investigation in full.

The author has clearly done his research into this little known crime and all through the book he gives us the touchstone in the way of this to aid the reader’s understanding and in a tone that makes for appealing reading, always using his pen to paint the scene.

“Labourers who’d finished their work on this Saturday midday had slaked their thirsts and fuelled their tempers in the local inn before joining the crush. A few made the sign of the cross as the cortege edged past. Others were more concerned with pulling their raggedy clothes more tightly about their malnourished bodies in an effort to ward off shivers induced by the twin assaults of sub-zero temperatures and infectious mob sentiment.”

Of course the really interesting stuff is the trial itself and this one is a doozy with many adjournments at the pre-trial hearings as the police, led by Scotland Yard’s Inspector Marshall, and the defence go off to find their evidence building their respective cases brick by brick. Even to get this far had been a feat as little Georgie’s body had been found in Yalding in Kent but she had disappeared from near her school gates in Pimlico London. Of course by rights the local Kent Constabulary thought the trial should be there whereas Inspector Marshall thought otherwise…

“But Marshall was already displaying the heavy-handed insensitivity towards provincial forces that Scotland Yard would elevate to an art form over the next half century. He saw no reason to cede control of a high-profile murder investigation to a bunch of apple-munching yokels who would probably only foul up the case. No, this was his collar, his case, his glory, and he didn’t intend sharing it with anyone.”

The trial was engaging and even the outcome wasn’t really a surprise, you can never be sure with these historical crimes! I’m exceptionally pleased to say that this author didn’t sit on the fence, after all the evidence he has sifted through, he’s come up with his own theory. I’m not convinced that it covers all the unanswered questions, but it certainly hangs together well enough for me to feel that this was a piece of research well rounded-off.

This book is my 23rd read in my Mount TBR challenge 2018 having been purchased on 29 December 2017 and one that has prompted me to seek out more work by this author of 17 books dealing with forensics and true crime.

First Published UK: 2013
Publisher: Colin Evans
No of Pages: 495
Genre: Non-Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

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

Who Killed Little Johnny Gill? – Kathryn McMaster

Historical Crime Fiction
4*s

Who Killed Little Johnny Gill? is a piece of fiction heavily based on a true crime committed in Manningham, a town to the north of Bradford in West Yorkshire in December 1888.

Johnny Gill was eager to help the local milkman out on his rounds, at just seven years old his mother insisted that he wear his warm coat as protection against the cold December morning. She expected him back as usual for his breakfast but he didn’t turn up. His mother first sent his older sister to look for him, then when she couldn’t find him went running up and down the nearby lanes looking for her eldest son, with his fair hair and sweet face. When his father Tom returned home and day turned to nigh and with still no clue as to where their son was, they went and reported him missing.

I’m not going to lie, the descriptions of the scenes when the small boy’s body was found in a nearby stable are hard to stomach. The crime may have been committed well over a hundred years ago but in some cases, the distance of time makes no difference to the horror felt.

Kathryn McMaster recreates the time and place using meticulous research as well as that of the crime investigations, including the speculation that Jack the Ripper had travelled to this northern town to commit a further atrocity.

The chief suspect wasn’t Jack the Ripper though, it was the milkman, William Barrett, a married man with a baby, who had recently moved to the town and who Johnny had joined on the milk round the morning he disappeared. William Barrett insisted he dropped the boy off before he returned to pick up more milk and start the second half of the morning round but no-one had seen the boy since. Due to the lack of concrete proof all the police had was a whole heap of circumstantial evidence, you will need to read the book to see if this was enough to convict anyone for the crime.

                5 January 1889

Fictional books of real crimes are tricky to get right, especially when the time period is so very far in the past, but both this book and Blackmail, Sex, Lies and Lies by the same author, concentrates the fiction to bring the personalities, and emotions, of those involved to life, thereby hitting exactly the right spot. We witness the terror and grief of both Johnny’s parents. The bewilderment of the locals that someone, possibly from within their community had carried out such an act and the support the milkman had from his boss and his wife. Intriguingly there was a fund set up to help pay for the twenty-eight year old’s court costs at the time, something that says such a lot about the sympathy and support that this young man garnered at the time.

Who Killed Little Johnny Gill? was an absolutely compelling read although not for the faint-hearted. The fictionalisation is subtlety and expertly woven between the known facts and documents from the time.

This is the 17th book I’ve read and reviewed as part of my Mount TBR Challenge for 2018. I am aiming to read 36 books across the year from those purchased before 1 January 2018. Who Killed Little Johnny Gill was purchased on 16 December 2017 thereby qualifying.

First Published UK: 9 February 2016
Publisher: Drama Llama Press
No of Pages: 305
Genre: Historical True Crime
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Blog Tour, Book Review, Books I have read

The Many Deaths of Mary Dobie – David Hastings – Ngaio Marsh Awards 2017

Non-Ficiton
4*s

I was thrilled to be asked to be part of the blog tour to celebrate the Ngaio Marsh Awards 2017 and even more excited when the book I was asked to review was one in the true crime genre, one that I have been exploring with a passion over the last few months.

David Hastings takes us back to 1880 New Zealand when a young woman, Mary Dobie was found lying dead under a flax bush near where she had been walking, possibly finding a place to sketch, as she was a talented artist one who had provided some illustrations for her brother’s book about ferns.

As I have found in so many books in this genre, the book doesn’t just focus on the investigation into the murder itself but explores the life of the victim, and her family who were on a three-year trip to New Zealand from England, and puts the death into the context of the social history and politics of the time and place, the latter I knew very little about.

Mary had travelled to New Zealand on a boat with her sister Bertha and her mother Ellen and we hear about the trip in part from the notebook that the two sisters wrote and drew in on the long trip. These entries are fascinating as neither sister behaves in quite the way we expect young Englishwomen to behave in the Victorian age. They were curious women, eager to learn about life and so on the ship they learnt about the sails and navigation from the crew crossing the social barriers normally in place. This was important in the context of the crime itself, not for the purpose of stating that Mary had put herself in the face of danger but more to give a real feel of the woman she was, outgoing and confident with a range of experiences that rival what most women of her generation would have experienced.

By the time of the murder Ellen and Mary were in Opunake on the Taranaki coast area to say goodbye to Bertha who had married during their extensive trip which also took in Samoa and Fiji. The Taranaki area was in a state of tension by this time, facts that David Hastings explains in detail and far more clearly than I can summarise here, between the settlers and the Maoris. The settlers had staked a claim to the land some twenty years previously but only more recently had started building roads carving up the area causing the Maoris to retaliate with their own non-violent protests. Both sides feared the next move the other may make and it was against this background that Mary was murdered. The timing of the murder was key and for a while it wasn’t clear whether the crime was committed by a Maori or a Pakeha let alone whether the motive was robbery, rape or a political act.

The author does a fabulous job of explaining all of the details of the political background, the characters of those involved and in the end taking us through the trial and the (mis)use that was made of Mary Dobie’s death after the event by those in power.

I read my copy of The Many Deaths of Mary Dobie in eBook format and would advise those of you who like the sound of this book to buy the physical copy as there are many wonderful pictures, those drawn by the Dobie sisters as well as some photographs which would be better seen alongside the text as unfortunately I have yet to master the flicking backwards and forwards to a satisfactory degree on my kindle.

I applaud the author for making the politics of the area so easily understood, and for bringing to life an unfamiliar region to his readers. This book held my attention throughout the voyage, the social history explored during the family’s travels and the trial itself. A very welcome addition to my true crime reading indeed.

First Published UK: 30 October 2015
Publisher: Auckland University Press
No of Pages:  240
Genre: Non-Fiction – True Crime
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Don’t miss out on the rest of the blog tour – there are some fantastic books, and blogs, to discover!

2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards Finalists

BEST CRIME NOVEL
• Pancake Money by Finn Bell
• Spare Me The Truth by CJ Carver (Zaffre)
• Red Herring by Jonothan Cullinane (HarperCollins)
• Marshall’s Law by Ben Sanders (Allen & Unwin)
• The Last Time We Spoke by Fiona Sussman (Allison & Busby)

BEST FIRST NOVEL
• Dead Lemons by Finn Bell
• Red Herring by Jonothan Cullinane (HarperCollins)
• The Ice Shroud by Gordon Ell (Bush Press)
• The Student Body by Simon Wyatt (Mary Egan Publishing)
• Days are Like Grass by Sue Younger (Eunoia Publishing)

BEST NON FICTION
• In Dark Places by Michael Bennett (Paul Little Books)
• The Scene of the Crime by Steve Braunias (HarperCollins)
• Double-Edged Sword by Simonne Butler with Andra Jenkin (Mary Egan Publishing)
• The Many Deaths of Mary Dobie by David Hastings (AUP)
• Blockbuster! by Lucy Sussex (Text Publishing)

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane – Paul Thomas Murphy

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

This historical true crime happened in 1871 in the Greenwich are of Victorian London. Poor Jane Coulson had been found in a terrible state with her face bashed in on a footpath by a policeman following his beat in the area. The girl was at last unidentified so extreme were her facial injuries and in the week or so that it took to discover who she was a few other girls, sadly of disrepute, were named as the victim. Eventually the truth was discovered but Jane Coulson didn’t, couldn’t, survive her injuries.

This is a well-researched book of a crime that I hadn’t come across before and doesn’t just concentrate on the police’s investigation into the murder but also the three trials the suspect underwent with the accompanying views of both the media and the local population at the time. With a sense of the place impeccably reconstructed for the reader as well as a detailed look at the various stages of the investigation and the trial I was absorbed by this reconstruction. With enough doubt to whether the right person had been arrested from the outset the author has pieced together the details including those that didn’t appear at the trial. Of course, after such a long period of time, there is little hard evidence to re-examine but that didn’t stop the author applying principles known today that were not at this time, being used to make a reasonable assessment of the case.

The author also captures the characters who make up the background to the story. From the reluctant witness of the shop-keeper who was unable to identify the man who bought the hammer which was the alleged weapon to the righteous Mr Henry Pook who defended the alleged perpetrator Edmund Pook, no relative. Edmund Pook was supported by his father a grandly named Ebenezer Pook along with his brother and other family members. The victim, Jane Coulson had worked as a maid of all work for this middle-class family and as a result we get to see how the Victorian class system operated at that time. Maids of all work were by far the most common servants of the time with middle-class families keeping one to do long hours as a status symbol as much as anything. The Pooks were not so well-off that Jane even had a pokey attic for a room, she actually shared with the victim’s cousin!

All in all a fascinating and immensely readable account of the crime, its investigation both into the identity of the victim and the murderer, the trials that followed and just as intriguingly the reaction of the public both on the streets and through the media of the day. In some ways this reaction was split along class lines but not entirely which in itself was interesting.

In the end my conclusion ties in with the authors but read the book yourself, you may well think that another scenario is equally as likely as to who did kill Jane Coulson.

I’d like to thank the publishers Head of Zeus who allowed me to read an advance copy of this book. This unbiased review is my thank you to them.

Published UK: 14 July 2016
Publisher: Head of Zeus
No of Pages 352
Genre: Historical True Crime
Amazon UK
Amazon US – Not Available

Posted in Books I have read

Death At The Priory – James Ruddick

True Crime (historical) 4*'s
True Crime (historical)
4*’s

Poison was a familiar murder weapon in Victorian England with many a tale abounding of arsenic used to gain a fortune, do away with a rival or an inconvenient spouse.

In this book James Ruddick believes he has uncovered the real truth of the perpetrator of Charles Bravo’s death by poison in 1876. Charles Bravo was a rich man who suffered an agonising death spread over three days. Poison was the culprit and the inquest into his death lasted a lengthy five weeks with journalists sending stories to all corners of England’s vast empire, but no-one was ever convicted of his murder, the problem was there were just too many suspects.

This is a fascinating portrait of the time as well as being a real life murder mystery. Ruddick begins by detailing the facts as they were presented to the inquest; scandalous evidence that included adultery and abortion. Reading between the lines there was also the more prosaic truth of the hardships of a Victorian woman, even if she was rich which Florence Draco was. Her companion Mrs Fox was not, and worse she had three young sons to support. Both women could be considered victims of circumstance and both were suspected, but never charged with, Charles Draco’s murder.

In the second part of the book Ruddick examines the evidence and details his efforts to trace the descendants of all the main parties in an attempt to flush out the truth. Does he succeed? Well some of the discrepancies highlighted in the book I had spotted by reading the evidence in the first part so the sceptical part of me is sure that others had probably spotted these before he did. I’m not entirely convinced about some of the ‘evidence’ that the families provided although one crucial piece does shed a different light on the matter. On balance I agreed with the author in his assessment of the probable perpetrator of the crime.

This was well-written and informative read and was an interesting read which included a fascinating portrait of Victorian Britain.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Caversham Road – Michael Stewart Conway

Historical Fiction 4*'s
Historical Fiction
4*’s

This is the second book to feature Furnivall and Stubbs who were introduced in the fictional portrayal of Amelia Dyer the infamous baby farmer in the first book by Michael Conway, Caversham Lock. In this book the mystery centres who killed a young woman has bled to death in an allotment in Reading. The detectives follow the scarce leads which loosely link to the tale of Sweeny Todd.

I enjoyed this book, the Victorian era being perfectly pitched, with the atmoshphere darkened by the gloomy descriptions of Victorian Reading. The Policemen Furnivall and Stubbs characters are further developed as they try to find out who the woman is and why she was killed helped by the Miss Prentice, a woman who longs to be a proper policewoman aheaad of her time. Along the way there are a number of colourful characters who all appear to have something to hide; in other words a perfect whodunnit.

The only minor criticism I have is at times it did feel as though slightly too much was included which meant that the book lost momentum.

If you enjoy crime novels and are a fan of history you can’t go too far wrong with this book. I will certainly buy the next in the series if Michael Conway will be good enough to write one!

Caversham LockCaversham Lock by Michael Stewart Conway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Caversham Lock tells the story of Amelia Dyer one of the most prolific women serial killers of all time. Amelia was a baby farmer in the Victorian era. Michael Conway brings this story to life told through the eyes of the fictional policeman Sergeant Stubbs and Constable Furnivall who are on hand to investigate when a baby’s body is pulled from the water at Caversham Lock.

Having read Amelia Dyer: Angel Maker: The Woman Who Murdered Babies for Money it is clear that this book is underpinned by meticulous research however this depressing story is lifted by the engaging relationship between Stubbs and Furnivall. I particularly enjoyed the references to Sergeant Stubb’s roving eye whenever the policemen come into contact with a pretty girl. The language the author uses adds to the atmosphere of Victorian England, both in the style of the writing, and the description of Victorian cities, without being intrusive to the story being told.

The telling a true crime story through a fictional medium can be a bit hit and miss and I was thoroughly impressed with this one; the quality of the writing blended with the known facts of this case gives an immensely readable book. I will definitely be following up on this excellent book by reading Caversham Road

View all my reviews

Ameila Dyer – Angel Maker

The Woman Who Murdered Babies for Money: The Story of Amelia DyerThe Woman Who Murdered Babies for Money: The Story of Amelia Dyer by Alison Rattle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading The Ghost of Lily Painter, a novel that draws upon the arrest and trial of Amelia Sach who was a baby farmer based in Finchley, I wanted to know more about how widespread this practice was.

A shocking story about baby farming in Victorian England

This book relays the life story of Amelia Dyer, born Amelia Hobley in 1838, the youngest of 5 children born to a relatively comfortable family for the times. The events surrounding the deaths of the children are truly horrifying. These children were entrusted to her care, often for [] pounds to take full responsibility for the rest of their lives thereby relieving their families of any further involvement. The authors describe how many of these were drugged and starved to death. Amelia appears to have started this career by acting as a midwife who for a fee ensured that babies were stillborn before moving on to placing adverts in papers offering to take care of children for a premium. Amelia plyed her trade, intersperced with time in prison and mental asylums for many years before finally being investigated fully in 1896.

This book also goes some way to explain why single women were persuaded that answering the adverts was the answer to their problems, orphanages would often stipulate that their charges be true orphans and a single woman with a child could not easily find employment and ensure their child was cared for. The lack of money was not helped by an act passed in 1830 which meant a single woman could not claim money for the child’s upkeep from the father.

A sad but informative book about a period of history where real poverty enabled such a foul trade to flourish.

View all my reviews

The Ghost of Lily Painter – Caitlin Davies

The Ghost of Lily PainterThe Ghost of Lily Painter by Caitlin Davies
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The ghost of Lily Painter is not a ghost story as such, it is not scary, but it is so much more!

Annie Sweet lives in number 43 Stanley Road, Holloway, a house which she is instantly drawn to with her husband Ben, and daughter Molly. In 1901 Lily Painter along with her sister, father and step-mother had lived in the same house as lodgers of a Police Inspector and his family. Annie starts to look on the 1901 census, initially for family members but with few details to go on looks to see who lived in her house and becomes interested in Lily Painter, wanting to discover what sort of life she would have led.

The book is divided between the past and the present by devices such as Inspector William George writing a journal starting in 1901 detailing his life as an Inspector, his family life and the crimes of some baby farmers. Lily (the ghost) commentates about life as it was for her then, whilst observing the present day occupants of the house she has haunted for many years. We also have Annie Sweet detailing her present life with her daughter and the mounting interest she has in Lily Painter.

There is a lot of historical fact within this book, the named baby farmers who have their part in this story are based upon real people, well researched and smoothly inserted into the story line.

The story depends on more than a little coincidence but that in no way detracted from the immense pleasure I got from reading this book.

I recommend this book to those interested in this history of the 20th Century although there is enough substance in this book that I believe this book would be enjoyed by anyone who loves a good, well written story. I am so pleased I was offered it in return for an honest review by Amazon Vine.

View all my reviews