Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Category: 18th century (page 1 of 5)

Raising the next generation of historians

The current exhibition at LMA incorporates a recreation of what it would have been like in the Old Bailey for defendants

One of the great things about being a historian in the 21st century is the many different ways in which you can both learn about, and disseminate, the history you’re interested in. Big data and digital history are two terms you may already be familiar with, with some historians – who I have to say I am in complete awe of – managing to crunch numbers and play with technology in a way I fear I will never be able to.

Other historians may team up with creative agencies and other non-historian individuals to find new ways to present aspects of our history – such as with the agency responsible for the Grim London interactive map and website (read an article about it here) – whereas others learn the skills themselves to push the field of Digital Humanities further.

Just a couple of the historians whose work is worth looking at are Adam CrymbleMelodee Beals and Tim Hitchcock; it’s also worth looking at Tim’s recent work on ‘recreating’ the experience of being at the Old Bailey in the past, based on written records, currently on display at London Metropolitan Archives.

But sometimes, there can be simpler, but still absorbing, ways of presenting history. Creative Histories (see the blog at Storying The Past), led by Will Pooley and Helen Rogers, has been a great way of learning about how historians, writers and artists have been seeking to find new ways of presenting history to us – from Ruth Singer’s Criminal Quilts project to Anthony Rhys’s artworks of ‘Upset Victorians’.

I am not throwing away my shot… etc.

Last year, I experienced history through the genre of the musical: firstly, with Lizzie – a punk rock retelling of the Lizzie Borden case in 19th century America (see my review of it here)- and then, this Christmas, getting to watch the much hyped Hamilton, where an incredibly enthusiastic London audience probably learned more about 18th century American history than they had at school. By subverting the traditional dry retelling of history by using different musical styles, from rock to hip-hop, history is made both interesting and universal.

The musicals share with recent books a desire both to write about history but also to understand it. Books such as Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done attempt to get inside the heads of those involved in crime cases, and in doing so, they get the reader involved in a way in which some traditional history books fail to do.

Purists argue that they play fast and loose with the facts, but the overall picture they give is still valuable. In Hamilton, the problem of Eliza Hamilton having destroyed her letters from Alexander, her husband, and her views being absent from the archival record, are actually foregrounded, both to show how we can never know her exact views, but have to guess at them, but also to highlight that women’s lives tend to be less recorded than men’s in history.

So what am I saying? I think that, as someone who was resolutely disinterested in history at school, due to a surfeit of royals and war – whereas I have always been more interested in the experiences of ordinary people in ordinary life – I would have welcomed these different approaches to history, and they would have both gained my interest and maintained it.

If we can get children interested in history, they’ll be interested in adulthood – and perhaps even create new presentations of history to get the next generation interested, too. And that’s got to be a good thing, in a time when our government seems resolutely disinterested in the value of the arts at both school and university level.

Why criminal ancestors sound so much more fun

Actor Lytton Grey, on the right in this image, was married to one of my ancestors; and attended her 18-year-old sister’s illegal marriage (© Criminal Historian)

Who would you rather be descended from – a worthy notable of a provincial town, whose munificence or moral rectitude resulted in a glowing obituary, or a city wide-boy whose exploits were recorded in newspapers and trial reports?

A few generations ago, you may well have said the former. Many people I’ve spoked to have grandparents who were horrified at the idea of having a criminal forebear, and who would have eagerly covered up the crimes – metaphorically, of course – with a focus on someone more deserving.

But times change, and now, it seems we all want to have a naughty ancestor caught stealing ladies’ underwear or even killing someone in a pub brawl. As long as it’s sufficiently in the past, it becomes a thing of interest, something that makes your family – and you – stand out.

I’ve been researching my family tree for years, and so far, it’s brought up a big, fat nothing in terms of trial reports or criminal records. On my father’s side, I am descended from generations of Dorset farmers, who were asked to be on juries, determining the fate of local miscreants, but who were law-abiding, middle-class individuals.

The worst thing I have found out about a member of this family is that the obituary of one of them insinuated that he was a bit annoying. That’s not really interesting enough, is it?

Gough Square – home of Samuel Johnson, and my ancestors (© Criminal Historian)

On my mother’s side, again, there’s little evidence of criminality, but much of being upstanding members of a community. One ancestor was one of the first policemen in Gloucester; he took on the job to help look after his aged, widowed mother financially (bless). Another was a neighbour of Dr Johnson‘s, living in Gough Square in the City of London. This ancestor is certainly listed on the Old Bailey Online website – but only as a jury member. A third represented his Oxford ward as a Poor Law Guardian, and had a keen interest in the welfare of the poor and conditions in the local workhouse.

The exploits of criminals – such as this 1936 murderer – are better remembered than the quiet achievements of the majority

I should be proud of having public-minded individuals as ancestors, who wanted to be involved in their local areas, and who helped ensure not only that local administration processes worked as smoothly as possible, but who helped put criminals behind bars. I am, honestly. Perhaps the problem is that these men, all good and true, do not have their achievements recorded to the same extent as criminals do with their offences.

Obituaries are key to remembering the achievements of local worthies, but mine were minor in their achievements, and of the two obituaries I’ve found for my Dorset lot, one is short and makes that slightly disparaging comment as though it is the most significant thing it can record about the individual; and the other exists mainly to note that my ancestor died in 1852, at the age of 96, from a ‘visitation of God‘.

So, weirdly to some, but perhaps inevitable given my research interests in crime, I’ve been really trying to find some evidence of criminality amongst my ancestors. As those who have read my book, Life on the Victorian Stage, will know, my great-grandfather had three sisters, all of whom were on the stage, and two of whom died at tragically early ages.

They sound good company: one eloped with an already married actor, the two marrying in an illegal ceremony in front of one of the other sisters and her (legal) husband; and one had an illegitimate child who she created a made-up father for, but who was given the name of her sister’s husband, making me wonder if he was actually the natural father of her child. But although fascinating, they weren’t ‘criminals’ in the sense that we usually mean it.

Their grandfather, though, shows more promise. He claimed to have been born in Hanwell, west London, but there’s no trace of his birth of baptism either there or anywhere, in fact. There’s no record of him existing prior to his marriage at a fairly advanced age. He claimed to be a captain in the British army, but The National Archives has no army records relating to him at all.

His wife had a substantial amount of money, and her family took steps to ensure that her husband wouldn’t receive a penny of it, instead passing it down to her daughters. Did they suspect him of only marrying for the cash?

And, most intriguingly, are two stories in the press that seem to refer to him, both later in life: in one, his wife is charged with assault after going after a woman she believes is having an affair with him; and in the other, he is charged with fathering a child by his gentry neighbour’s far younger servant. The newspaper reports how the court thought it hilarious that this elderly man could have possibly got up to anything with a young girl, let alone fathered a daughter; more intriguingly, it states that this man ‘calls himself a Captain’, as though they also doubted his origins and his claims of army employment.

The latter stories help flesh out this unknown ancestor – he appears to have been a ladies’ man, at least. The lack of records relating to him, his lack of family, mean that I can speculate that he was a fraudster, a man with an assumed identity, someone who desired money, and sex, and had affairs.

The reality might be more prosaic: the relevant records might not have been digitised; he may have been born in one place but baptised somewhere different, or been told he was born in a certain place when he wasn’t…. and so, perhaps, the unknown is sometimes better than the known, for with the former, you can create the person you hope your ancestor was; whereas, in truth, all I know for sure is that he, like so many of my other ancestors, was also another blooming Poor Law Guardian.

 

Event: Talk on crime in 18th century England

Speaker John T Smith (photo via Bucks FHS)

A quick heads-up for those of you in or near Buckinghamshire: this Saturday (20 January) will see John T Smith presenting a review of crime in England in the 18th century at the monthly meeting of the Buckinghamshire Family History Society.

John will look at the transporting of offenders to lands beyond the seas; he says that ‘Botany Bay and Van Diemen’s Land came later, and we know about their history, but most people haven’t much idea of where we exported our Buckinghamshire felons before 1787.’

The talk will take place at 2pm at Turnfurlong Junior School in Aylesbury (HP21 7PL); non-members of the Bucks FHS are welcome, and there is a £4 charge for admission.

 

Crime reporting and moral panics – what’s changed?

This 1891 article refers back to the moral panic caused by the Ratcliff Highway murders 80 years earlier

A couple of people on my Twitter timeline posted this earlier today – it’s an article on The Daily Beast about an app, Citizen, that is designed to highlight the crimes currently underway in your neighbourhood, and to enable individuals to discuss it (you can also receive alerts ‘every time a significant incident or emergency happens near you’, according to the app’s promo statement).

It sounds, at first glance, to be an app serving the public interest. You can avoid places where trouble is underway; if you’re brave (or foolhardy), you can intervene; or you can talk about it with others in your vicinity, perhaps reassuring each other about it.

But, as writer Taylor Lorenz states in the Daily Beast article,

“Do I need to know about every carjacking in sight of my office to remain personally safe? Probably not. Using Citizen, in fact, made me more paranoid and probably stoked a lot of my latent irrational fears about violent crime and axe murderers.”

In this, Taylor is no different to newspaper readers in the 18th and 19th centuries, who were both terrified of crime, yet drawn to stories of crime at the same time. Newspapers fed into their fears by increasingly publishing crime stories, drawn from court cases, gossip, and imagination. Reading the Victorian newspapers on the British Newspaper Archive, it’s hard to miss the reams of murders, assaults, thefts, and more bizarre or unusual crimes with their dramatic headlines and breathless tones.

The Whitechapel Murders created huge panic, not just in 1888, but for years afterwards (and perhaps even today). This example is from the Illustrated Police News in 1905.

These stories often used what appears to modern eyes to be a standard narrative – in many cases, the perpetrator of the crime is male, working-class, from a poor or slum area. He may be a drunkard; he may be Irish (many crimes were associated with Irish immigrants, with drink, or with class, betraying Victorian xenophobia and class-consciousness, as well as later efforts by temperance advocates to associate drink with criminality).

Moral panics were created or fed by these newspapers; an isolated case, or a couple of unrelated offences, might be seized upon and magnified, a link being made between disparate offences in order to create the impression of a crime wave. A particular group within society might then be associated with this offence, or group of offences, with the press and/or legislators then seeking to make an example of this group.

This ‘deviancy amplification spiral’, as criminologists and sociologists have termed it (1), could either make it appear more serious an offence than it was; or have the unintended result of readers, the public, then romanticising the criminal and his actions, making a folk-hero of him if he wasn’t feared instead. There were, then, two possible over-reactions – fear, or the adoption of a romantic narrative that may not have reflected the crime or the criminal (see the romanticisation of highwaymen in some quarters).

Elements of the press had some consciousness of what was happening here; in 1874, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph noted that:

‘happiness and goodness, because they are common-place conditions of life, do not make anything like the same impression on men’s minds that is made by the exceptional instances of vice and misery. We hear of a horrid murder… of some pitiable scene of domestic discord or moarital violence, and compare men with brutes…and are tempted to despair of human nature.’ (2)

The paper argued that such crime stories attracted public attention (and that of the press) because of their relative rarity – that is why they were newsworthy. Its comment also suggested that an aspect of human nature was – and is – inclined to use such relatively isolated cases to think about wider philosophical issues about life and death. Yet it failed to acknowledge its own role in magnifying these ‘rare’ offences and to create a panic amongst the public that crime was more prevalent than it really was.

Moral panics, of course, have never gone away, as the prevalence of books discussing contemporary examples show (3). The Citizen app suggests that there are simply more ways today to disseminate crime news and to create a moral panic; it originally started as an app that was deemed to encourage vigilante action, and so hastily rebranded and relaunched – but now, it appears that it serves a more voyeuristic than useful purpose, thus highlighting its similarity to crime reporting throughout the last few centuries.

SOURCES:

  1. Leslie T Wilkins, Social Deviance (Tavistock, 1964); Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Routledge, 2002); Tim Newburn, Criminology (2017)
  2. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 16 July 1874, p.2
  3. See, for example, Julian Pettley (ed), Moral Panics in the Contemporary World (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016); Erich Goode, Moral Panics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, 2nd ed); Chas Critcher, Moral Panics and the Media (OUP, 2003). All discuss modern examples of moral panics. In terms of work on earlier moral panics, David Lemming and Claire Walker (eds), Moral Panics, the Media and the Law in Early Modern England (2009) is highly recommended.
  4. The two newspaper excerpts used as illustrations in this post come from the Homeward Mail of 16 March 1891, and the Illustrated Police News of 23 December 1905, both via the British Newspaper Archive.

 

Review: West Indians – Forefathers of the Metropolitan Police?

The Museum of London at Docklands

This month, a new display appeared at the Museum of London Docklands looking at the history of the Thames River Police. Judging by the description of it on the museum’s website, it sounded like a major new exhibit –  and this would be appropriate, given the long history of the Thames River Police, or Marine Police, which was founded in Wapping in 1798.

However, if you’re expecting a lot, like I was, you might be disappointed. After immediately visiting usual ground floor exhibition space only to find it dark and empty, I was redirected by a member of staff to the second floor – but I had already visited this, and hadn’t spotted anything about the police. On looking round the floor again, twice, I found the display, and understood why I missed it. There is nothing directing you to it; and it comprises a single display board (albeit a fairly large one) and one artefacts display case at the side of it.

The artefacts include a copy of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829; a copy of Patrick Colquhoun’s treatise, which inspired the creation of the police (he first published it in 1796, although the copy here is from the 6th edition); a police seal, hangar, scabbard, tipstaff, rattle and handcuffs, all dating from the first quarter of the 19th century,

Sources for these artefacts are the Thames Police Museum, the Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre and the West India Committee (the latter having curated the display); but placed separately like this, they actually lose something – I felt I understood more about the Marine Police from my visit to the Thames Police Museum, where the curator talked me through the history and artefacts, in the police’s actual base.

A map of the Port of London, focal point of the display

The display board is nicely designed, with its focal point being a map of the Port of London, from the city, out east to the mouth of the Thames. But understandably, given its size, it has to limit the amount of information it tells you: so there’s a brief mention of the 1798 Dung Wharf riot, and the inevitable paragraph on the Ratcliff Highway murders of 1811.

There’s better mention of Patrick Colquhoun than of John Harriott, the JP who devised a plan to police Thames shipping in 1797. It was Harriott’s plan that led Colquhoun to convince the West India merchants’ and planters’ committees to finance a year’s trial of this new police force, initially known as the West India Merchants Company Marine Police Institute – a trial which became a two year one, before, in 1800, government made the Marine Police a public police force under the control of the Home Secretary (see here for more on its early history).

I understand that this display is part of a larger project by the West India Committee to uncover the ‘little known shared heritage of the Caribbean and police services today’, and utilises its own archival resources. Yet given the Thames Police Museum’s own collection and expertise, it just feels like a wasted opportunity to publicise the history of the River Police to a wider audience, and to go into more detail about why it was set up, and the relationship between the police and the men they dealt with.

Patrick Colquhoun, founder of the Thames Marine Police

The West India Committee, meanwhile, claims on its website simply that it ‘founded… the Thames Police’ and that ‘West Indians ran, staffed and funded the force’, with its phrasing suggesting that West Indians were doing so prior to 1839. These claims (and potential differentiation between initiating an organisation, founding it, and funding it) deserved more detail than the limited information provided on the display board (I would have particularly have liked more detail on the Committee’s involvement with Colquhoun) – and the artefacts displayed fail to make any link to the West India Committee outside of them being simply police artefacts.

The Museum acknowledges that most people assume that the Metropolitan Police was the start of ‘modern’ policing in London, when actually, the Thames River Police is the longest, continuously serving police force not only in London, but in the world. I’m not sure the display is clear enough about its remit, and because of this, it frustrates by the bite-size pieces of information it offers visitors.

West Indians: Forefathers of the Metropolitan Police? runs at the Museum of London Docklands until 14 January 2018

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A journey round HMP Shepton Mallet

A bit of publicity on the local news always helps, and it was an item on the television about a ghost being spotted by staff at a former Somerset prison that got me in the car to go and visit it. Now, I have to say upfront that I don’t believe in ghosts in any way, shape or form (I annoy anyone I watch Most Haunted with by hooting with laughter for much of it), but it was the mention that the prison was open to visitors for a limited time before being redeveloped that made me drop my work and travel down to the south-west.

HMP Shepton Mallet, located near the centre of the Somerset town, closed in 2013 after a four-century history, and is due to be developed into flats (the BBC has covered consultations into its future). However, until works begin next year, the prison is being opened on a regular basis for public tours. These are run by Jailhouse Tours, which bills itself as providing the ‘most immersive tours’ of recently closed jails (it also runs similar tours of Shrewsbury and Gloucester prisons).

Don’t be concerned about the word ‘immersive’, however. Although the company offers a fully-guided two hour trip round the prison, accompanied by a former prison officer, you can also wander round on your own, if you prefer – and in this case, ‘immersive’ simply means wandering round wherever you want, in a prison where few concessions have been made for the dark tourist, which is, in my opinion, a good thing.

Those former prisons that have been permanently opened up to visitors inevitably shape, curate and present a certain narrative, with various levels of success. For every Kilmainham Gaol – where, although there are exhibitions and guides, you still get a clear sense of the bleakness and tedium of life inside – there is a Littledean Jail (porn and titillation in a former House of Correction). But here, you see a prison in varying levels of decay, abandoned and left as it was, with different stages of its history exposed.

There is damp and mould; peeling walls and smells emanating from the urinals and showers. You can crawl into a 17th century cell – rediscovered years after being boarded up – or visit the 20th century gymnasium. You see the changing nature of criminal justice, the inhumanity of aspects of prison life, and sense how horrific it must have been to be in the exercise yard, in the fresh air, yet surrounded by the high walls and barred windows of the prison on all sides.

It’s not cheap to visit; and if you want everything explained to you via flashy interpretation boards, don’t go (here, things to look at are pointed out on laminated sheets of A4 stuck on doors, due to the temporary nature of the tour). But the staff are both welcoming and genuinely interested in the site, and there’s free tea and coffee in the old visiting rooms… and, more importantly, it’s a rare opportunity to see so many centuries of criminal history before the developers take over.

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New crime and punishment records online

The Findmypast search page for its crime collection

Findmypast added a final 68,000 records to its collection of England and Wales Crime, Prisons and Punishments records last Friday, with its collection now being the largest set of English and Welsh crime records available online.

All these new records have come from The National Archives at Kew, and are taken from five separate series:

  • Home Office (HO 8) – convict hulks, convict prisons and criminal lunatic asylums, quarterly returns of prisoners
  • Central Criminal Court (CRIM 9) – after-trial calendars of prisoners
  • Home Office (HO 140) – calendar of prisoners
  • Home Office/Prison Commission (PCOM 2) – prison records
  • Home Office/Prison Commission (PCOM 3) – male licences, 1853-1887

This image is from Findmypast’s collection, and originated in the HO8 files (HO 8/161). Part of the ‘Convict Hulks, Convict Prisons and Criminal Lunatic Asylums: Quarterly Returns of Prisoners’, it records names, ages, offences, where and when convicted, the sentence, and the convict’s health and behaviour during the quarter of the year in which the returns were compiled. So here, we can see that William Jeffs, a 22-year-old burglar, had displayed ‘bad’ behaviour, whereas another convict had shown ‘exemplary’ behaviour despite being a convicted rapist.

As you might be able to tell from this image, not all the names are written out in full – several are just initials and a surname – and the location and year are not evident from this simple search result, so you may need to do a bit of cross-referencing or scrolling back through images to give you more information.

FMP’s records have come from The National Archives at Kew

Also, do not assume that the place listed at the front of the entire document is the only one mentioned – for example, with this image, some prior pages are from the Attested List of the Convict Department, Criminal Lunatic Asylum, Broadmoor, and for the quarter ending on 30 September 1864 – but the last entries in the original book are for the Invalid Convict Prison at Woking.

But if you suspect you have a criminal ancestor, these online records may help you track them – and their crimes – down; and even if you don’t have a convict in your family tree, they make for fascinating reading!

You can access the Crime and Punishment collection on Findmypast here – a subscription is needed for full access.

Female felons and controlling the community

Yarn spinning: an example of a spinning wheel from Hereford.

Yarn spinning: an example of a spinning wheel from Hereford.

As one of my particular interests is gender and crime, looking at how women have been represented in the criminal justice system both as victims and perpetrators of crime, as well as being vital witnesses in many case, I like to seek out other research in this area.

So with this in mind, and following on the footsteps of Findmypast’s recent blog post on finding 18th and 19th century ‘Wayward Women’, it’s good to see the British Library publish a post this week on Female Felons in the 18th Century. This post focuses on the women who can be found in the Calendars of Prisoners, and the cases the blog post cites include women accused of false reeling, being bastard-bearers, and of being idle and disorderly.

These offences were common ones for women in the late 18th century. Spinning was a job that women could do from home, whilst looking after their children – and in many cases, children could also help with the job.

However, some women took short-cuts, claiming to have spun a certain amount but actually doing less and taking extra yarn to others to be sold on. Yarn was supposed to comprise a certain number of threads; women convicted of false reeling had spun fewer threads onto a standard reel. For a fuller account of how yarn spinners were regulated in law, John Styles‘ paper ‘Spinners and the Law: Regulating Yarn Standards in the Worsted Industries, 1550-1800’ (Textile History, 44(2), 145-170 (2013) is highly recommended, and can be downloaded here.

Being accused of being ‘lewd’ by having illegitimate children was a form of social control aimed at the mothers, not the fathers, of children. Although theoretically any woman who had given birth to an illegitimate child could face a charge of lewdness, in practice, it tended to be particular women who were deemed to be troublesome, or who had had more than one illegitimate child, who were targeted.

'Une Savoyarde' by Noël Hallé

‘Une Savoyarde’ by Noël Hallé

Women who had several children were perceived to be ignoring the social and moral conventions of society, and therefore had to be ‘punished’ for their repeated transgressions. This appears to be the case with the woman noted in the British Library‘s post; Mary Parker served a year in prison in Wakefield in 1778 after being found to have had three ‘bastard’ children.

And idle and disorderly? This was a term that could be applied to an increasing number of actions under the vagrancy legislation of the 18th and early 19th centuries. It could apply to those begging, or singing for money; but also for a wide range of other occupations or types of behaviour, and was an opportunity to ‘remove’ poorer members of society from the community in which they had been living, thus obviating the need of that particular parish to give them poor relief by shipping them off to their ‘home’ parish. To hear a podcast on ‘Loose, idle and disorderly: Vagrant removal in late eighteenth-century Middlesex’ by Tim Hitchcock, Adam Crymble and Louise Falcini, see the Institute of Historical Research website here.

Again a form of social control, the cases and offences detailed in the British Library’s blog post show how English society was preoccupied with both restricted the ways in which women could make a bit of money, and the way they tried to live their lives.

 

Joking is a hanging offence

It’s nice when two of my research interests – theatre and crime* – come together, so it tickled me to find the following short article in an Australian newspaper from 1907. Although our ancestors’ jokes can sometimes appear a bit opaque – or simply unfunny – to us, with the passing of time, this one is still clear.

 

David Garrick - what a wag

David Garrick – what a wag

Once, when David Garrick was passing Tyburn, he saw a crowd assembled to witness the execution of a criminal.

 

“Who is he?” asked the actor of a friend who was with him.

 

“I believe his name is Vowel,” was the reply.

 

“Ah,” said Garrick, “I wonder which of the vowels he is, for there are seven! At all events, it is certain that it is neither U or I.”

And that is your crime-related humour for the week. 🙂

 

*My next book, which fuses these two interests, will be published by Pen & Sword in 2017.  

Top Five: Historical Crime Books

I’ve been an avid reader most of my life, but have often shunned novels set in the past. My antenna is tuned in for anachronisms or generalisations, for a poor understanding of period or simply for an unbelievable story.

However, over the years, there have been a few books that have had me unable to turn the pages quickly enough. They have been quite different both in the periods they cover and how they approach history – some cover events which happened only a few years before the books were written; others fictionalise events or characters far more than others.

Historical crime fiction is currently undergoing something of a renaissance with three of my chosen books here being recent examples of the genre. I’m really pleased, in particular, to see the 18th and early 19th centuries being the focus of some great research and writing – I’ve always sung the praises of the 18th century, despite one publisher once telling me that “the 18th century doesn’t sell” and “it’s not sexy”. I’d beg to differ.

But anyway – here’s my list.

512qXgnErSL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

(Penguin, 2000)

It might be a bit of a cheat, as it was written less than a decade after the events it depicts – but it’s too good not to include it here. This book has had, and continues to have, much controversy over how fictionalised the iconic American writer made this tale, which details the horrific murders of the Clutter family in their Kansas home in 1959. Certainly, Capote writes a blend of fact and fiction, but in doing so, creates an incredibly powerful narrative both about murder and the motives of those who commit it. He shows the mundanity and hopelessness of the lives of the two men who carried out the offences – the bleakness of their lives set against the optimism of teenager Nancy Clutter, one of the victims.

 

 

libraLibra by Don DeLillo

(Penguin, 2011)

Those who follow me on Twitter will probably know what a *huge* fan of this contemporary American author I am. DeLillo is particularly interested in the media, and shares some similarities with the likes of Thomas Pynchon, but this is probably one of his most accessible books. It recreates the story of Lee Harvey Oswald – the assassin (lone or otherwise!) of JFK in 1963 – from his own perspective, creating a form of language that makes Oswald a real, if complex, character in a novelisation of his life. Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale is another good ‘faction’ book of the same iconic American historical event.

 

 

UnknownThe Silversmith’s Wife by Sophia Tobin

(Simon & Schuster, 2014)

This is just a beautiful book. It features as it’s main character a woman – yay! – and is a gently unfolding, yet gripping, murder mystery and love story in one. Set in 18th century London, it opens with the murder of the eponymous silversmith, but it is fundamentally about his wife – her reaction to his death and how she lives in its aftermath. It is full of factual detail that is never overpowering (I dislike books that shove their research and their historical accuracy in your face – “Look at me! Look how clever I am!” – as much as I hate inaccuracies. Yes, I’m difficult to please). The story here is what takes precedence over the period; it’s simply a good story that happens to be set in the past.

 

 

51poQlQzpXL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

(Hodder, 2014)

I am so jealous of Hodgson for this book. The precursor of her latest book, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, it is a meticulously researched book set largely in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison – where Thomas Hawkins is sent. A murder occurs, and Hawkins has to work out what has happened. As I say, the research is so detailed here, and it really brings 18th century London, and life in the debtors’ prisons, to life. It makes you feel both grim and dirty, angry and disbelieving, when you read of the way the impoverished were treated in the past, and the inherent inequality in how different debtors were treated even when they were all being kept in one place.

 

51bT9yipSwL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_The Detective and the Devil by Lloyd Shepherd

(Simon & Schuster, 2016)

Lloyd has been quietly developing a new genre, with his historical crime books that blend fact and fiction, natural and supernatural. This is the latest instalment, the third since The English Monster, which I really enjoyed until near the end, when the reveal about the murderer made me raise an eyebrow, I’m afraid. But I enjoyed this latest instalment right to the finish. Lloyd uses real people and events from the past 500 years, but particularly the early 19th century. His hero is Charles Horton, from the Thames Marine Police; his elderly boss is the equally real magistrate John Harriott, and even Charles Lamb makes an appearance.  Lloyd is equally at home with depicting the grimness of Georgian Wapping as he is with depicting the island of St Helena; and his main female character is a spirited woman who strives to shake off the limitations society has placed on her gender.

 

 

 

 

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