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

Murder by the Book – Claire Harman

Non-Fiction
4*s

Another book in this year’s favourite topic; Victorian true crime, with the crime in this case committed in the early part of the young Queen’s reign. It was 6 May 1840 when Lord William Russell was found lying on his bed with his head almost severed. Quite a shock for the servants who found him. This isn’t a story from the backstreets of Whitechapel either, rather the scene of the crime was on a smart street in Mayfair.

The crime itself was shocking enough and kept those who followed the subsequent investigation duly scandalised, and to be fair, frightened. If a crime like this could happen in Mayfair, was anywhere safe in these ‘modern times’? What worried everyone even more though was when a culprit was found and questioned. The story he gave was that he’d changed from a former gentle young man to savage murderer because of his reading matter – the best selling crime novel of the day being Jack Sheppard by William Harrison Ainsworth. A book that had gained a widespread following in part due to the rising levels of literature amongst the lower classes. Given that the story was of a daring (and dashing) jail-breaker in the style known as a Newgate Novel. The key to success for writers at this time were to be published as serials in the style of Charles Dickens and coincidentally Jack Sheppard appeared in some of the same editions of Bentley’s Miscellany as Oliver Twist himself and it seems Ainsworth jumped on the popular genre of the day and with a bit of slang and plenty of references to robbery and violence with a dollop of romance, the public couldn’t get enough. Giving the novel even more realism Jack Sheppard was a well-known criminal in 18th-century London.

The author of our book, Claire Harman goes onto describe how the theatres were quick to put their adaptions of the novel on the stage so aspiring criminals didn’t have to read the book itself for the power of crime to seep into the bones until it would seem that there was hardly a man or woman in the land from the lowliest to the mightiest who hadn’t read or watched Jack Sheppard’s daring dos.

The newspapers who were as quick back then as now to have something concrete to blame. Newgate Novels were held up as the cause of the murder of Lord William Russell and Jack Sheppard in particular. All of this is terrifically interesting especially the reaction of Ainsworth’s former friends including Charles Dickens who went out of his way to explain why Oliver Twist wasn’t a Newgate Novel despite many of the themes in the two books being remarkably similar.

Needless to say for all the hoo-ha the books continued o be popular but Ainsworth toned down the writing style in subsequent books and was never as successful again.

Unfortunately from an interest perspective this wasn’t the most exciting of investigations as the police fairly quickly alighted on their main suspect, although of course from this distance of time and knowing how few scientific resources the police had to use, there is always a level of wonder about the apprehension of the right man. The interest comes from the reading matter of our ancestors who’d have thought a book could cause quite such a stir? This alongside the interesting legal facts the author presents from the day meant that the result was I felt I’d got some real insight into social history from an unusual angle.

I’d like to thank the publishers Penguin Books UK for allowing me to read a proof copy of Murder by the Book. This review is my unbiased thanks to them.

First Published UK: 25 October 2018
Publisher: Penguin Books UK
No of Pages: 224
Genre: Non Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

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

The Lady in the Cellar – Sinclair McKay

Non Fiction
5*s

So the darker nights have encouraged another foray into Victorian true crime with this, the second book I have read by Sinclair McKay this year.

The Lady in the Cellar refers to a Miss Matilda Hacker who was found amongst the coal in a cellar in a boarding house in Euston Square in London.  She’d been dead for quite some time by the time her body was found in 1879 and at first the police were at a loss even as to her identity. You see her final resting place in a boarding house in a fast expanding London lends itself to a more anonymous lifestyle, one where the occupants lived alongside strangers in rooms of varying sizes and facilities.
Matilda Hacker was an eccentric, she’d moved to London from her native Canterbury on her sister’s death – these two spinsters were a familiar site when they took their daily promenade in their lavish silk dresses, dresses which were far too youthful for the ‘elderly’ women who wore them. After her sister’s death she moved away pursued for rates and other bills she could easily afford to pay and took up residence in boarding houses in the capital. The rise of this ‘new’ way of living is expertly explained within the book.

When she came to Mr and Mrs Bastendorff’s bording house it was to be given a furnished room, the use of the water closet and a cupboard to store food and other perishables. She could buy her own food for the servant, Hannah Dobbs, to cook or she could give Hannah to fetch the items herself both means were used to be fed, watered and generally kept an eye on. As Matilda Hacker was in her late sixties by this time, it doesn’t seem to bad a way of life.

We are also treated to the background of the Bastendorffs, the move of Severin from his native Luxembourg to London alongside his sister and a troupe of brothers is also a fascinating insight into how foreigners assimilated into life at this point in history. Severin was a furniture maker who had set up his own business by the time a body was found in the basement of his house. His wife was English and the pair had four small children. This was the rise of the middle classes, the house, the servant and regular income from the business in the back yard as well as the money they made by renting out rooms within their stylish house.

As you can tell there is plenty of contemporary details to be gleaned and Sinclair McKay presents his story well, long before we get to the trial, which lets face it is where the fun begins. The police decided that the perpetrator was Hannah Dobbs, yes the servant! That must have caused more than a little disquiet amongst the middle-classes, no-one wants a murderer living in their home. There were links to pawn-brokers amongst other clues as to what happened to Matilda’s belongings, but the trial was only the beginning.

This was a meaty story with the tendrils once again illustrating that the Victorians were not quite how they have been painted in more recent history. For those of us who were taught they were all prudes, this seems far from the racy story that Hannah sold to the papers! If you want to know more, you really should read The Lady in the Cellar.

I’d like to thank the publishers White Lion Publishing for allowing me to be immersed into this story that ends sadly for more than one of those who, perhaps completely innocently, got caught up in a murder that captured the nation’s attention. This unbiased review is my thanks to them, and to Sinclair McKay for his diligent research which was relayed to this reader in such a well-structured manner that it became a compulsive read.

First Published UK:  6 September 2018
Publisher: White Lion Publishing
No of Pages: 320
Genre: Non Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2018, Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2018

The Poisoner – Stephen Bates #20BooksofSummer

Non-Fiction
3*s

Well every year I like to explore my weird obsession with poisoners a little bit more and Dr William Palmer who was tried for the murder of his friend in 1856 by poisoning seemed a good place to travel to in this journey.

Stephen Bates has compiled his book based on the 12 day trial for poisoning his gambling partner by strychnine, one of the less common poisons to use. On 13 November 1855 Palmer’s friend John Parsons Cook was on a high, he’d managed to win, when he was lucky enough to win £3,000 at Shrewsbury races, Palmer’s horse didn’t win. That night the winner fell ill and the loser tended to him. Dr William Palmer had trained as a surgeon and at best was a small town GP but he’d given up that as a way to make money long ago and now he gambled and part-owned horses to make his living.

In order to set out the facts for us I have to commend the author for the amount of research into this case using amongst other items the newspapers of the day and the archives at both Kew and Stafford, the area in which the death of John Parsons Cook occurred. What follows was even for the day, a large number of deaths including his brother and a number of children, killed for the insurance money the prosecution ascertained. But why did Palmer kill his partner? What was the motive? Well according to the victim’s father it all hinged on his betting book, Cook hadn’t yet collected his winnings before falling ill but if that was the case, Palmer’s scheme failed because he wasn’t able to get his hands on them either.

Sadly the book itself was not written in the most sparkling of prose, it often got bogged down in the particulars losing sight somewhat of the overall story. Yes, it is non-fiction, but a good author, and editor, will keep the narrative moving along. Sadly there was repetition from the early chapters in the later ones, maybe the author was worried we’d lost track by then! The book starts well enough with a description of the day of the race, the subsequent illness and the calling of the doctor for assistance but later on we skip back to the other ‘mysterious deaths’ and a (very) long chapter on the racing world only to pick over the details of the crime again when it came to court. Perhaps a judicial editor could have made the entirety feel slightly less ‘stodgy’

That said, there was an awful lot to enjoy and many parts that I found fascinating, particularly the social history that backs up this particular crime. As always the newspaper coverage was interesting as was their horror at the number of people that turned up at the courts etc… you can always rely on the media to be the most hypocritical bunch. That might also be said about our dear friend Charles Dickens who pops up with regularity in all these Victorian trials, and hangings, bemoaning the popularity of events. It is rumoured that Inspector Bucket from Bleak House was modelled on the tenacious Charles Frederick Field who investigated the insurance angle of the crime.

Facts such as that this was the first trial moved from its home county following the Central Criminal Court Act 1856 being passed by an Act of Parliament due to the belief that the accused couldn’t possibly get a fair trial in Staffordshire; the trial was held at the Old Bailey instead, were stacked high and so on balance it was worth a read for an ardent follower of poisoners through the ages such as myself.

The Poisoner is my twelfth read in my 20 Books for Summer 2018 Challenge

First Published UK: 2014
Publisher: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd
No of Pages: 324
Genre: Non-Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2017, Book Review, Books I have read

The Ripper of Waterloo Road – Jan Bondeson #20booksofsummer

Non-Fiction
4*s


In 1838 a high-class prostitute, Eliza Grimwood, took a French-speaking gentleman home to her shared lodgings. The following morning Eliza was found with her throat cut and her abdomen slashed. Her fellow housemates, who included her boyfriend William Hubbard had not heard a sound except a single yap from her pet dog.

Jon Bondeson is a crime historian with more than twenty books to his name and he starts by setting the stage, describing London at the early time of Queen Victoria’s reign. He gives special attention to the Waterloo Bridge and the perception of prostitute demonstrating the prurient interest from the public and the different classes of ‘working women.’ We also get a whistle-stop tour of the most notable murder of the time including the Ratcliffe murder and that of Hannah Brown by James Greenacre and Sarah Gale. This is a book packed full of information with references to sources and lots of pictures of the subjects and not confined to those in the penny dreadfuls of the time. In fact the illustrations that are present on many of the pages bring to life the points the author is making with perfect placement, something I much prefer to those books that confine these to the centre pages.


As Eliza and the mysterious French speaker had arranged to meet at The Strand we are treated to some of the plays that may have been showing on that fateful night of Friday 26 May 1838, sadly it is not possible to know what was on the bill of this small but packed theatre that night. Eliza and her ‘guest’ alighted a Hansom cab which took them back to Waterloo Road but who the man was has never quite been established.

Inspector Charles Frederick Field was called to the scene, a former actor he had been one of the first officers of the New Police when it formed in 1829. Jon Bondeson takes a pause to enlighten his readers to other crimes that this, probably the best-known Policeman in London encountered over the course of his career. There is no doubt that life in the force at that time was hard but the crime were not investigated in quite the isolation as I perhaps thought. First came the inquest.

 

Waterloo Road – 3 June 1838

In true melodramatic fashion the inquest was given the run-around by local characters either not giving the information they held or alternatively throwing suspicion in all direction so that even the most trivial of facts became obscured. All of which kept the news flowing with Charles Dickens taking such a keen interest Nancy of Oliver Twist fame is believed to have been inspired by poor Eliza Grimwood.

Of course a true-crime begs to be solved even all these years later and with the help of Inspector Field’s diary, which is perfectly preserved, along with newspaper articles and other contemporary offerings, Jon Bondeson is sure he has found the culprit and it seems to me that he provides a very compelling argument for his case. Of course as in the case with all these types of crime, despite even the most in-depth, and the author studied this crime over a decade prior to this book being written, can’t ever give us a conclusive answer and sadly no court of law will pronounce its judgement.

For lovers of Victorian true crime The Ripper of Waterloo Road gives a comprehensive examination not only of the crimes committed but wider commentary on the life and times without allowing itself to get into too wide a discourse which would make the book far too unwieldy.

The Ripper of Waterloo Road was my twelfth read in my 20 Books of Summer 2017 Challenge.

First Published UK: 13 January 2017
Publisher: The History Press
No of Pages: 288
Genre: Non-Fiction – True Crime
Amazon UK
Amazon US 

Posted in Weekly Posts

First Chapter ~ First Paragraph (April 26)

First Chapter

Welcome to another Tuesday celebrating bookish events, from Tuesday/First Chapter/Intros, hosted by Bibliophile by the Sea Every Tuesday, Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea posts the opening paragraph (sometime two) of a book she decided to read based on the opening. Feel free to grab the banner and play along.

The book I’ve chosen to use this week is a book that I am approaching with a high level of anticipation; The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale who wrote the brilliant non-fiction book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. This should keep me nicely entertained over the Bank Holiday weekend.

The Wicked Boy

Blurb

Early in the morning of Monday 8 July 1895, thirteen-year-old Robert Coombes and his twelve-year-old brother Nattie set out from their small, yellow-brick terraced house in East London to watch a cricket match at Lord’s. Their father had gone to sea the previous Friday, the boys told their neighbours, and their mother was visiting her family in Liverpool. Over the next ten days Robert and Nattie spent extravagantly, pawning their parents’ valuables to fund trips to the theatre and the seaside. But as the sun beat down on the Coombes house, a strange smell began to emanate from the building.
When the police were finally called to investigate, the discovery they made sent the press into a frenzy of horror and alarm, and Robert and Nattie were swept up in a criminal trial that echoed the outrageous plots of the ‘penny dreadful’ novels that Robert loved to read.
In The Wicked Boy, Kate Summerscale has uncovered a fascinating true story of murder and morality – it is not just a meticulous examination of a shocking Victorian case, but also a compelling account of its aftermath, and of man’s capacity to overcome the past. Amazon

Part i

TEN DAYS IN JULY

THE THREE OF US

Early in the morning of Monday 8 July 1895, Robert and Nathanial Coombes dressed themselves, collected the family’s rent book from a room downstairs, and went out to the back yard, It was just after 6 a.m. and already bright and warm.
Robert was thirteen and Nattie twelve. Their father had gone to sea on Friday, as chief steward on a steamship bound for New York, leaving the brothers and their mother, Emily, at home together. They lived in a small, new, yellow-brick terraced house at 35 Cave Road, Plaistow, a poor but respectable working-class district in West Ham, the biggest borough in the docklands of East London.
In an attempt to attract the attention of their neighbour in number 37, Robert picked up a handful of stones and threw them at the roof of the washhouse next door.

Please note that this is an excerpt from a proof copy

I’m predisposed to love this book, I’m a sucker for well-researched Victorian true-crime and in my opinion Kate Summerscale achieves this without compromising the ‘readability’. Have you read this book? What did you think?

Do you want to know more? Please leave your thoughts and/or links in the comment box below!