A REAL LIFE SUSSEX BOOK DEALER called Ralph Spurrier has written a book. It starts in the present day, with a Sussex book dealer, name of – you guessed it – Ralph Spurrier, and Mr S has bought a job lot of books and bits. Their erstwhile owner is dead, and his bungalow and its contents are being sold at auction. The fictional Mr S – and probably his real-life doppelganger – make their livings by buying van-loads of books in the hope that somewhere in the pile of book club reprints and assorted dross there will be a first edition, something autographed, or another rarity which can be sold on to pay the bills.
The wheat amongst the chaff in this case is the autobiography of Britain’s most celebrated hangman, Albert Pierrepoint who hanged, among many others, Gordon Cummins and Ruth Ellis. The book is inscribed to Reginald Manley who, fictionally, was to become a hangman himself. Manley’s effects include a diary written by one of his judicial victims, a young man called Henry Eastman.
The diary tells how Eastman was convicted of murder. His victim? A man called George Tanner. At this point, the law of coincidences takes over, because Tanner and Manley were in the advanced patrol of Allied troops who forced their way into the nightmare landscape of the Belsen concentration camp. The things they saw – the smells and the sensations – would stay with them for ever. But all wars end, and George Tanner, after demob, ends up in a small English town. He strikes up a friendship with a war widow, Mavis Eastman, proprietor of a small sweetshop in the town, struggling with post-war economic privations, helped only by her son Henry.
Henry Eastman watches impotently as his close relationship with his mother dilutes with every day that Mavis becomes closer to George. Mavis, however, does not lack for admirers, but when George is found dead, Henry Eastman becomes the prime suspect. He is unworldly, far from stupid, but naïve. He is tried, found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged. Now the executioner, Manley botches the job, but eventually Henry Eastman is laid in the ground, but far from ‘at rest’. Eastman’s copious diary is kept by Reginald Manley and, as a reader, you are left to speculate whether or not it is a reliable narrative, or the ramblings of a delusional young man.
Ralph Spurrier (the real one) has written a compelling novel which weaves together the threads of a possible miscarriage of justice, the grinding pressures of post-war austerity and a hint of the timeless damage caused by an Oedipus Complex. Best of all, for me, is his beautiful recreation of an England which I remember, but will never come again. The sights, the sounds, the noisy shuffle of steam trains in country stations, all are recreated with a telling authenticity.
This book ticks all the boxes that, for me, make for a good novel. The characterisation and plot are both well out of the ordinary and the sense of time and place reveals just what a fine writer Spurrier is. It is not a book that could ever have a sequel, or become part of a series but it is, nonetheless, a superb read.
A Coin For The Hangman is available on Amazon, where you can also read more about the author (below)