Wednesday 29 January 2020

Murder by the Book: A Sensational Chapter in Victorian Crime, Claire Harman

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On 6th May 1840, Lord William Russell is found dead in his bed in a quiet Mayfair street, his throat cut so deeply it is almost severed. The house is in disarray, the result of a seeming faked burglary designed to throw the police off the scent. It soon becomes apparent that it was an inside job and all the in-house staff fall under intense investigation.

The culprit is discovered about half way through the book, but their arrest is far from the end of the story as they release multiple, contradictory confessions, in one blaming William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Jack Sheppard, in which the notorious criminal is the hero, for giving them the idea. This leads to a discussion of the popularity of ‘Newgate novels’ and the impact they had on criminal behaviour. Books were becoming increasingly affordable and, at a time before intellectual property law, cheap knock-offs and plays proliferated, making these gruesome tales accessible to most members of society. A number of criminals were said to have been influenced by these novels, and division in the literary world emerged.

Dickens’ Oliver Twist could easily have been classified as a Newgate novel, something he was keen to avoid. Ainsworth on the other hand embraced the trend, and although initially it brought him fame and fortune, the specific mention of his novel by the condemned caused an abrupt change in its popularity. He continued writing throughout his life but never regained the status he’d originally garnered from Jack Sheppard.

A book examining the link between fiction and true crime is an interesting concept, but the connection is not as important in this particular tale as perhaps the blurb suggests. It is however, an interesting book that places Lord Russell’s murder in the wider social context of the time. An era where criminal celebrities were emerging and public executions were still a public spectacle that attracted tens of thousands, yet on the cusp of moving toward less barbaric, more private, punishments.

A slightly slow start is worth persevering with as you’re led into the dark underworld of Victorian respectability. Harman closes with comments on some of the unresolved mysteries of the case, suggesting possible answers, but ultimately leaving you wondering what really happened that fateful night.

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