Reviewed by Lyn Baines
True crime is a genre that fascinates many readers. Whether it’s a famous unsolved case such as Jack the Ripper or a case where there’s a suspicion of a miscarriage of justice, such as the conviction of Florence Maybrick for the murder of her husband, true tales of crime and mystery are fascinating. The members of the Crime Writers’ Association include writers of fiction and non-fiction, and this anthology, Truly Criminal, edited by Martin Edwards, includes contributions from writers of fact and fiction, and a collection of stories spanning several centuries and many countries, from Iceland and Shetland to France.
My own interest in true crime is in historical cases. I don’t like to think about modern day serial killers stalking the streets but a genteel Victorian poisoning is a different matter. Some of the cases recounted in Truly Criminal are very well-known but there were several that were new to me. The authors have been given free rein in the manner and style of their chapters and several of them reveal quite personal links to the crimes they discuss. There’s also a bonus in the form of a rare essay by Margery Allingham on the murder of Julia Wallace, a case that continues to fascinate over eighty years later. Allingham looks at the role played by the Prudential Staff Union (the union that insurance salesman and accused murderer William Herbert Wallace belonged to) who raised the funds for the appeal that saved Wallace’s life.
Kate Ellis writes about a case that has fascinated her all her life. Growing up in Liverpool, she has always been aware of the Maybrick case. Florence Maybrick was accused of murdering her husband James, by poisoning him with arsenic. Florence was younger than her husband, beautiful, American, disenchanted with marriage and having an affair. James Maybrick was accustomed to taking arsenic in any number of potions and tonics and there were many sources of arsenic in the house. It’s surprising that more Victorians didn’t die of poison as there were so many ways they could come into contact with it. However, it was Florence’s purchase of flypapers that caused suspicion. Flypapers impregnated with arsenic that she planned to use in a beauty preparation. There was no way of proving the origin of the arsenic in James’s body or the method by which it got there. Was Florence on trial for her indiscretions and the suspicions of the Maybrick family rather than because there was any real evidence that she poisoned her husband?
Peter Lovesey writes about the Brides in the Bath murders from an entirely new angle. Instead of approaching the story through the lives of the famous advocate, Marshall Hall, the forensic expert, Bernard Spilsbury, or the unfortunate victims or the callous murderer, George Joseph Smith, Lovesey revisits the case through the baths and the part they played in the case. He also traces their afterlives as exhibits at Madame Tussaud’s and Scotland Yard’s Black Museum. Smith was a cruel but charismatic man who married women for their small savings or for the proceeds of the life insurance policies he always made sure to take out. He used the same technique each time, moving away from his wife’s family, taking his wife to a doctor where she would complain of headaches or fits, insisting on a bath being available in their lodgings and then discovering his wife drowned in the bath as a result of a faint or fit. His method was almost foolproof, if he had only done it once or twice. However, newspaper reports of the third mysterious death of a drowned bride came to the attention of his former in-laws and an extensive police investigation pieced together Smith’s crimes.
The Maybrick and Smith cases are very well-known and much has been written about them. Other cases are more obscure and reveal fascinating aspects of social history. Joan Lock discusses the murder of Rev George Hollest by a gang of burglars at his home in rural Surrey in 1850. There was no police force in Surrey at the time, so detectives from several other jurisdictions, including Scotland Yard, Guildford and Godalming, were involved. This created problems of process, seniority and responsibility which ultimately led to the creation of a local police force. The characterisation of the accused murderers by the newspapers of the time also reveals much about social and racial stereotypes of the period and the freedom of the Press to use such prejudicial language during a trial. One of the accused murderers, Levi Harwood, was described as one whose ‘coarse and rugged features betrayed violent passions’, while his co-accused, James Jones, was described by The Times as having a face which ‘expressed a life of depravity and crime’.
Kate Clarke recounts the story of Catherine Foster, a seventeen year old girl who, in 1846, murdered her husband by adding arsenic to his dumplings. They had been married only a few weeks and Foster seems to have committed the murder on the spur of the moment, maybe after realising she was trapped in this marriage to a man who had pursued her for some years but who she didn’t love. Linda Stratmann’s fascinating exploration of the murder of Monsieur Boursier in Paris in 1823 involves a Greek gigolo, an infatuated middle-aged woman with five children and a dish of rice pottage laced with arsenic. Stratmann even includes a recipe for rice pottage with the sensible instruction that arsenic should not be added.
One of the most poignant stories is told by Marsali Taylor. She was told the story of the baby buried in the kailyard of an Orkney cottage by several people and was surprised at how many people claimed to have personal knowledge of events that happened in the 1870s. Widow Janet Thomson lived in Walls, in the west of Shetland, with her three daughters, Janet, Margaret and Joan. Margaret gave birth to a child that was later found dead. However, Margaret never admitted that she was pregnant, the identity of the father was never investigated and her family, although they questioned Margaret about her ill-health and tried to encouraged her to confide in them, claimed they knew nothing about the pregnancy or the birth. Margaret was charged with concealment of a pregnancy and sentenced to fifteen months jail. Taylor sets out the evidence in admirable detail and attempts to resolve the many puzzling questions that arise.
Truly Criminal is a fascinating anthology of crime from some of the best contemporary writers of mystery fiction and non-fiction. Even the most avid fan of true crime will discover a surprise or two.
Lyn Baines blogs at I Prefer Reading , has no hope of ever getting through the tbr shelves but refuses to let this worry her.
Martin Edwards, ed., Truly Criminal : a Crime Writers’ Association anthology of true crime (The History Press: Gloucestershire, 2015). 9780750961103, 288pp., paperback.
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