Murder By The Book – Claire Harman

Summary:

This is an account of a murder that happened in 1840, that caused massive uproar at the time, and brought into sharp focus the effects of the “Newgate novels” onto society, an argument that still has parallels in today’s world (e.g. the effect of video games).

Main Characters:

Francois Courvoisier: The valet, and chief suspect of the crime.

Lord William Russell: The victim. A minor aristocrat in and of himself, but well-connected in society.

Jack Sheppard: He was a real-life thief, who was brought back to life in the eponymous novel by William Ainsworth, published shortly before the murder, and which was a massive seller.

Minor Characters:

The Metropolitan Police: A force in its infancy, it contained a lot of amateurs and incompetents.

The Press: Sensationalist reporting versus the more measured tones, the angles the journalists took gripped the popular imagination.

Plot:

In early May 1840, Lord William Russell was found dead, his head having been nearly severed from his body. He was an elderly and minor aristocrat, having lived abroad for many years, but now enjoying his cloistered life in Mayfair, London.

Initially, the scene looked like a suicide, but closer inspection led the Metropolitan Police to start a murder inquiry, suspecting it was a burglary gone wrong. It was a gory death, with Russell’s head nearly being cleaved from his shoulders, and the body was found in a sea of blood.

The author follows several threads in this novel, giving background details where necessary, and fleshing out the main suspect Courvoisier. She has clearly done her research, as the threads are pulled together to give us as complete a picture of the clumsy performance of the police, the antis of the lawyers, and the implied pressure the judiciary and police were under from the royal and aristocratic interest in the case (the newly married Queen Victoria, who herself had just survived an assassination attempt, took a very keen interest, even having her prime minister update her!).

This was the age where Dickens was beginning to find his writing muse yet was still relatively unknown, Thackeray was a struggling word-smith a decade away from Vanity Fair, and the most popular author at this time was William Ainsworth of Manchester, who conquered London and the UK with his book Jack Shepard, glorifying the criminal life of its eponymous hero. This genre was known as the “Newgate novels”, which glamorised the criminal underworld, portrayed the authorities as fools, which had its own “lingo”, and promoted a devil-may-care approach to life. Think “Pirates of the Caribbean”, but more sinister, and on a less-suspecting audience.

These novels caused great concern at the time, especially around destroying the morals (and passivity??) of the working class. The topic of censorship was thus very much in the air. The popularity of this novel at the time (all but forgotten now) was such that it was in eight out of nine London theatres, and was reprinted several times (and many more times illegally).

Courvoisier was eventually found guilty (yes – the butler did it!), but one of his stated reasons [he gave several, and contradicted himself so often that the author cannot confirm which account was the truth] was that Jack Sheppard had inspired him. This ignited London, and the whole city talked of nothing else.

The author details what must be one of the first instances of celebrity news, where nearly 40,000 people turned up at Newgate to watch Courvoisier hang. In the throng were Dickens, Thackeray, and numerous others. Both were deeply influenced by this, leading to their campaigns to repeal the death penalty in years to come.

What I Liked:

  • The research is meticulous, and the account is very well-structured.
  • She does not aim to sensationalise, but gives the facts and allows us to infer.
  • There is an excellent “Unanswered Questions” at the end, which casts a cold light on the then-investigation, and several holes that appear, and leads not followed up.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • The author focused solely on the potential effect of the novel, and while mentioned the huge turbulence in society at the time (e.g. the Chartist movement), is not given any space as a potential trigger. Society itself was in a whirlpool, but none of those ripples affect these shores.
  • There was some extraneous information, which while interesting from a historical perspective, had no real bearing on the crime (e.g. Dickens’ Raven ending up in Poe’s museum). This tended to drag the story.
  • The author kept it very factual, so there was none of the usual drama or tension of a crime novel per se. It could have become Ripper-esque, in the sense of did he act alone, and the unresolved loose ends.

Overall:

It was a good read, which kept my interest. It is not a genre I would normally take on, but it was well-structured, excellently researched and historically interesting, but I think one for those more familiar with and disposed towards this type of novel.

Acknowledgements:

I received a free .mobi from First To Read in return for an objective and honest review.

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