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Murder by Death

I read cozy and historical mysteries, a bit of Paranormal/UF, and to mix it up, I read science and gardening books on occasion.

Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens’s London

Murder by the Book - Claire Harman

I picked this up while cruising through my new subscriptions with the Free Library of Philadelphia, and Orange County Library Systems, wallowing in their audiobook choices, and trying to find something to listen to while waiting for Kill The Farm Boy to come my way. 

 

I knew nothing about the book, save what I read in the summary.  In a nutshell, it's something like a forensic examination of the Courvoisier trial in 1840, for the murder of Lord William Russel.  Courvoisier was Russel's valet, and was accused of cutting his Lord's throat while he slept, a crime that was disturbingly close to the one committed in the newest prose sensation tearing through London, William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard.  A book the accused cited as a contributing factor when he confessed.

 

First of all, the narrator, Andy Secombe, was excellent; his accent was so very British, and though I have a Yank's tin ear for regional dialects, his variations of the many, many voices quoted in the book, accurate or not, made it easy to follow along and not get too bogged down or confused.  There were a few times I wondered if he was having just a bit of fun with some of the 'characters'; it was subtle and arguable, and it might just be I've watched too many old BBC comedies, but it did not in any way hurt the tone of the narrative.

 

To call the book fascinating would be stretching the point, I think, but it was an interesting read, and a very topical reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Our culture's current debate over 'do violent video games/music lyrics/movies corrupt our youth?' is merely the modern spin of the 1870's version of the same debate: 'do violent, sensationalist crime novels/theatre corrupt society?'  I also couldn't help but think of the parallels between the phenomenon that was Jack Sheppard and the mad rush to get it on stage, and the 50 Shades insanity just a few years back.  Neither book was lauded for its literary merit, merely it's scandalous and shocking content; both translated equally disastrously, though with the same raging popularity, to the stage/screen.

 

The author ends the book by pointing out the myriad of questions surrounding Courvoisier's guilt, in spite of the multitude of official confessions the man made.  Those multiple confessions are part of the reason questions remain - no two confessions tell the same tale - and the forensic information gleaned from the reports and accounts do not fit with any of Courvoisier's versions of the events.  In an age when the UK had public hangings and no appeal process, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say no man would have confessed had he not been guilty; there were easier ways to commit suicide.  Sometimes even shoddy investigations end up finding the culprit.

 

The single disappointment I had with the book also came at the end, when Harman is outlining possible motives; she hints at the possibility of a homosexual relationship between the Lord and his valet.  I found this in and of itself to be sensationalist for a couple of reasons: Harman readily admits that Lord William Russel was by all accounts a happily married man before his wife died and that he continued to remember her fondly; Courvoisier was known in the past to have had one or two female relationships, though he was unattached at the time of the murder; and Courvoisier had only been under Lord William Russel's employ a very short period before the murder - 6 weeks if I'm remembering correctly.  Given the prejudice and the laws of the time, a secret relationship was not impossible, but it was certainly improbable given the known facts.  Maybe the author felt like any objective consideration of the case would be incomplete without raising the possibility, but to me it just came across as hearing hoofbeats and screaming Zebras.

 

To be fair, Harman probably devoted fewer words to the possibility than I just did, or at least not many more, so it's a tiny blip in an otherwise interesting peek into the past.

 

I started reading this before I really knew what squares I had on my card, and I don't have the Truly Terrifying square for which this would be a perfect fit, but I'll use it for my Free Space square.