“A devil once lived in God’s own county,” states the blurb to this new book on the Victorian burglar and murderer Charlie Peace, and this sets up the style of the book well. First-time author Ben W Johnson proudly proclaims his journalistic credentials on the book’s cover, . has a journalistic background which does, perhaps, help explain the style in which he writes.
So what could be a grim, bleak tale of life in 19th century Sheffield becomes, in Johnson’s writing, a romanticised story of a boy who saw his father injured in the course of work and who was also injured young, ending his legitimate career hopes. A tale of a physically and morally repugnant man, who treated his wife appallingly badly, and had little thought as to other people’s feelings, becomes, in this account, almost heroic in places.
Although the author has clearly spent time on his research, the book is occasionally problematic in terms of facts; for example, Johnson states unequivocally that Peace married his wife, Hannah (on page 30, he says that Charlie and Hannah married ‘in a small ceremony in nearby Rotherham’, and on page 137 he notes that she was a woman who ‘took her wedding vows seriously’), but he then refers to her, later in the book, as his ‘common-law wife’ (p.114) – which would mean they were not married.
He frequently refers to Peace’s ‘athleticism’ – despite the fact that Peace was lame and had a pronounced limp. He states that Beverley was a ‘town in North Yorkshire’ (p.85) – it is, and was at the time of the events described in the book, in the East Riding. Peace’s stepson, Willie, is given two different surnames (Willie Ward on p.120 – Ward being briefly one of Pearce’s pseudonyms, but there is no sign that anyone else adopted that name – and Willie Haines in the illustrations insert) during the course of the book.
More problematically, Johnson also ascribes feelings to Peace and the members of his family, where I am not certain he can possibly know what they were – it is not clear whether he has got them from historical sources or has simply put his modern day sensibilities onto these very different Victorian figures.
So on p.19, we are told that Peace’s parents ‘glowed with pride’ when he played an instrument, and on p.21 that he had visits in hospital from ‘his loving family’ and that he ‘thanked his lucky stars each day’ that he had not had a leg amputated (although on the same page, and the following, we are also told that he had a ‘sense of hopelessness’ about his predicament). His wife is his ‘soulmate and lover’ (p.30); his mother is said to have been ‘alarmed’ by the changes she saw in her son (p.22). If these feelings are based on archival sources, I would have liked to have been told that, as it instead gives the impression that Johnson has got confused as to whether he is writing a history book or a work of historical fiction.
It’s certainly a great story – Peace moved around the country evading police for quite a while; he may (or may not) have had an affair that led to him becoming what we would call today an obsessive stalker, and murdering his (possible) lover’s husband. He also had the ability to dislocate his jaw at will, changing his appearance, and could feign being different characters through his use of dress and walnut oil.
But he was also, clearly, an unattractive, repugnant character, and the sympathy of readers may well be with the women he came into contact with, as well as the unfortunate lover’s husband and also a Manchester constable who ended up dead at Peace’s hand. He was not the romanticised American-style gangster that Johnson appears to want him to be (the description of a Manchester pub as being ‘more akin to a rowdy Wild West saloon’ on p.55 is one suggestion of this); he was a petty criminal from Sheffield whose committed murders appear to have been more the result of fluke than of plan.
Perhaps the hyperbole and odd similes and metaphors that Johnson clearly loves contribute to this strange attempt to make Peace more of a man than he was. One victim is described as dropping to the ground and lying ‘as still as a carved statue’ while Charlie ‘scampered into the night like a wily urban fox’ (p.72); at another point, Charlie disappears into the darkness ‘like an unwelcome gust of icy wind’ (p.83). Johnson refers to the ‘first green shoots of criminality rising to the surface’ in the young Peace (p.24); elsewhere we are told that ‘the talons of crime had buried themselves too deep into the flesh of this wretched villain’. (p.30). I ended up getting distracted looking for the next example of this unnecessarily flowery language, which is not what a reader wants to do, or should do!
Basically, Johnson has a good story here, but needs to reign in his tendency to over-egg his language in order to tell it effectively. There’s nothing wrong with paring back, rather than adding to, the words. He also needs to decide whether he wants to write a factual history of crime, or whether his enthusiasm is really for historical fiction. Trying to combine two different genres, as he appears to do here, can occasionally jar, as can the propensity to ascribe modern emotions about the family to 19th century characters who may have lived differently, or had different motivations, to those he, in the 21st century, assumes. However, it is still a readable romp through Charlie Peace’s life.