Review by Basil Ransome-Davies
Back when I aspired to write crime fiction but realised I was a lousy plotter, I used to buy used true-crime magazines on Preston market to give me ideas. They were generally in good nick, as if cared for by respectful fans, but the down-and-dirty content still gave then a whiff of grubbiness. I lapped them up, immune to their trashy reputation. There were those on one hand, and on the other there were high-profile works such as Truman Capote’s 1966 ‘non-fiction novel’ In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s prizewinning study of a psychotic killer, The Executioner’s Song (1979). Both counted as ‘serious’ literature and both, being the product of raging authorial egos seeking controversy, were exploitative in other, and perhaps worse, ways than the popular mags.
By contrast, The Poisonous Solicitor, the detailed history of a 1922 capital case on the England/Wales border, must be a contender for the gold standard of true-crime writing. It has the narrative appeal, the thrill that impels the general reader, of a sensational case leading to a judicial hanging and the strong, lingering suspicion of a miscarriage of justice. It is also distinguished by wide, conscientious research, a panoptic view of the cultural context, a considered, nuanced style that helpfully unpicks some of the complexities involved and a humane attitude throughout. Add to that the drily understated humour which intermittently relieves a sad, grisly tale, shown in asides such as ‘The American newspapers were particularly intrigued by a narrative which showed British reserve and respectability ripped apart by cunning and malevolence.’
It didn’t lack appeal in Britain either. Bates’ early reference points for the story of Major (his title as a reservist) Herbert Rowse Armstrong’s trial and execution for the lethal poisoning of his wife include George Orwell’s seminal essay ‘Decline of the English Murder’ and the wave of popular homicidal whodunits published in the aftermath of World War I. Orwell sketched a template for the genre in which ‘The murderer should be a little man of the professional class – a dentist or a solicitor, say – living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs….The means chosen should, of course, be poison.’ The motives are the eternal ones: sex and money. Further, the murder mysteries of the ‘golden age’ invited the reader to pit his wits against the authors’ darkly entangled and commonly preposterous plotting. Could you identify the killer before the dénouement? It wasn’t always the butler.
In outline, the real-life Armstrong drama fits the Orwell scheme. The convicted man was a solicitor. The death was by poison. And the interest stirred up by the case – local, national, global – equalled the strained, fascinated attention of novel readers trying to solve fictional clues. The Manchester Guardian sent a senior reporter. Matthew Anderson, to cover the trial; his eloquent despatches added colour to the forensic process. Outside the Hereford courthouse, crowds mobbed the street, drawing the comment from one bystander that ‘they enjoy seeing a man in trouble’. The high-minded Anderson contradicted that, but I doubt he was right. Armstrong was in deep, deep trouble, and in the emergent era of worldwide mass communications that cursed him with the spectacular fame of a man on trial for his life..
The nub of the case was that Armstrong had fed his wife arsenic till she died. He’d certainly been buying arsenic from a local pharmacist, plenty of it. To kill dandelions, he claimed. Suspicions gathered. A well-regarded pillar of the community, he was made to realise just how fragile that status was when the law came calling. Exhumation revealed arsenic as the cause of death, an established fact. Nothing else about the affair was as straightforward as it seemed, or Armstrong initially believed. One black cloud was the memory of one previous death, unrelated but similar, in 1919. It also involved a Welsh solicitor, arsenic, a dead wife and a murder trial. The accused, Harold Greenwood, was acquitted, but a popular verdict was that he’d got away with it. That helped build up prejudice against Armstrong, as did a web of circumstance, which included professional rivalry, financial disputes, status anxiety, a friend’s betrayal and a chemist’s malice, medical incompetence, chronic shithousery, small-town paranoia, allegations of priapism while the accused was a widower abroad and a mysterious box of poisoned chocolates. All this in a sweaty, toxic atmosphere of rumour, morbid excitement and newspaper headlines.
There will always be more questions than answers here, but the outcome was over-determined. Once the authorities got hold of the drama – an inspector was even sent from Scotland Yard, imagine – Armstrong was in the clutches of the British criminal justice system, with its dark arts, impenetrable rules and élite body of whited sepulchres. In other words, doomed. Judge Darling, who ran the trial in Hereford, had a short way with the defence and in his summing up all but instructed the jury to find the major guilty. It appears he finally accepted his ghastly death, going gentle into that good night. All the same, more than a whiff of miscarriage of justice remains.The US has a striking idiom for victims delivered to judgment without a fair trial: ‘railroaded’. Bates’ reasoned and insightful account of Major Armstrong’s fate has convinced me that, guilty or innocent, if he wasn’t railroaded nobody ever was, poor devil.
Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.
Stephen Bates, The Poisonous Solicitor (Icon Books 2022) 978-17985788178, 324 pp., hardback.
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