August 2016

THE BLEAK HOUSE AFFAIR … Martyr or murderer?

Bleak HouseTHE 1999 SHOOTING OF A 16 YEAR-OLD BOY during an attempted burglary at a remote Norfolk farmhouse landed the unfortunate teenager in an early grave, and the farmer who fired the fatal shot  was given a life sentence for murder.

The case divided the nation’s opinion, and still causes controversy to this day. To find out more, listen to the podcast.


JACK THE RIPPER … In fiction

To write anything new or meaningful about the facts surrounding what is probably the world’s most celebrated – and baffling – unsolved murder mystery is virtually impossible. Despite this, it doesn’t stop writers of every stripe trying. Sometimes the results can be worthy. On other occasions, they can be simply embarrassing. One of the poorer efforts cost Patricia Cornwell a good part of her considerable fortune to try to convince the world that Jack The Ripper was none other than Walter Richard Sickert, the celebrated painter. Very few people outside the close circle of the creator of Kay Scarpetta resisted the temptation of a facepalm moment. So, no-one knows the identity of Jack The Ripper, and I imagine Ladbrokes (other bookmakers are available) would give you very long odds against anyone ever discovering his (other genders are available) identity.

 Instead of going over old ground, in both a literal and figurative sense, I have taken a look at a trio of novels which, in different ways, have been influenced by the events of that terrible autumn in 1888. For all any of us know, these books may contain every bit as much truth as their factual counterparts.

 The Curse Upon Mitre Square, A.D. 1530 – 1888 by John Francis Brewer (1888)
This was little more than a blood and thunder pamphlet. Its main – and perhaps sole – distinction is that it was actually published before the final canonical victim, Mary Jane TCUMS.jpgKelly, met a bloody end in her Millers Court hovel. Of Brewer, we know very little, but his style can best be illustrated with a brief extract.

“With a demon’s fury the monk then threw down the corpse and trod it out of any recognition.
He spat upon the mutilated face and,
with his remaining strength, he ripped the body open and cast the entrails round about.”

As the title suggests, Brewer focuses on the murder of Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square, and his plot, such as it is, contends that the killer is none other that a spectral avenger, a mad monk no less, who haunts Mitre Square, allegedly the site of an ancient monastery. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, given the almost unassuaged thirst for Ripper material both in Britain and across The Atlantic, Brewer’s feverish account is still available in print. Whoever Brewer was, it is unlikely that his estate benefits from sales of the modern reprints. As you will see from the graphic, one later edition of the book was teamed up with another account, slightly more thoughtful, called The Lodger by Marie Belloc-Lowndes (1913)

Novelist_Marie_Adelaide_Belloc_LowndesBelloc-Lowndes (right) was the older sister of the prolific writer and poet Hilaire Belloc, but she avoided her brother’s antimodern polemicism, and wrote biographies, plays – and novels which were very highly thought of for their subtlety and psychological insight into crime, although she preferred not to be thought of as a crime fiction writer. In The Lodger, Mr and Mrs Bunting have staked their life savings on buying a house big enough to take in paying guests, but just as their dream is on the verge of crumbling, salvation comes in the form of the mysterious Mr Sleuth, who knocks on the door and takes a room, paying up front with many a gold sovereign. As Mr and Mrs Bunting count their money – and their blessings – London is gripped with terror as a killer nicknamed ‘The Avenger’ stalks the streets searching for blood. The Buntings’ peace of mind evaporates as they suspect that their lodger is none other than The Avenger. Such is the quality of The Lodger that it has been filmed many times, most notably by Alfred Hitchcock in 1927. It would be remiss of me not to quote the famous bloodcurdling imprecation at the end of the book, directed at the hapless landlady.

“Your end will be bitter as wormwood and sharp as a two-edged sword.
Your feet shall go down to death, and your steps take hold on hell.”

Lodger Composite

WILSON-obit-web-videoSixteenByNine1050Colin Wilson, who died in 2013, (left) was the kind of man with whom the British establishment, certainly in the 1950s and 60s, was most deeply ill at ease. He was, as much by his own proclamation as that of others, intellectually formidable. He burst on the literary scene in 1957 with The Outsider, a journey through an existential world in the company of, among others, Camus, Nietzsche, Kafka, Sartre, Hermann Hesse and Van Gogh. His novel that concerns us is Ritual In The Dark. Published, after a long gestation, in 1960, it examines how The Ripper legend transposes itself onto the London streets of the late 1950s. It must be remembered that many of the murder sites were still more or less recognisable, at that time,  to Ripper afficionados. The tale involves three young men, Gerard Sorme, Oliver Glasp and Austin Nunne. Sorme goes about his life well aware of the significance of past deeds, but also knowing that a present day killer is out and about, emulating the horrors of 1888. Wilson could be said to be one of the pioneers of psychogeography, a linking of past and present much used by modern writers such as Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd. Sorme says,

RITD“I am lying here in the middle of London, with a population of three million people asleep around me,
and a past that extends back to the time when the Romans built the city on a fever swamp.I can’t explain what I felt. It was a sense of
participation in everything. I wanted to live a million times more than anybody has ever lived.”

 As it slowly dawns on Sorme that the killer is one of his close associates, he is forced to examine the nature of loyalty, guilt and responsibility. He learns that the deliverer of violent death can, by night, be a mysterious cloaked figure carrying a black bag, but by day can blend into the queue at the Post Office and go home on the number 59 ‘bus with complete impunity.

Other Ripper novels to explore include:

White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987) by Iain Sinclair
The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978) by Michael Dibdin
Pentecost Alley (1996) by Anne Perry
A Study in Terror (1966) by Ellory Queen
Mercedes Marie: The story of Mary Jane Kelly (2016) by Fusty Luggs








Who remembers the adventures of that frightful cad, Harry Flashman? The writer George MacDonald Fraser picked up a thumbnail sketch of the boy who was a significant character in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, a forgotten ‘classic’ written by Thomas Hughes, published in 1857. Hughes’s Flashman was a bully of the worst kind, but in a succession of best selling novels, Fraser followed his anti-hero’s adult career through the pivotal events of the 19th century, including the American Civil War, The Crimean War, various encounters with Otto von Bismarck, the Zulu wars and several escapades in Afghanistan and Imperial India.

Now, the publishers of Get Lucky, an autobiography of Paul Eagles, say:

“Get Lucky is the true story of a rogue, sometimes lovable but often otherwise.”

Get LuckySo was Mr Eagles a late 20th century Flashman? In some ways he seems to have all the charm of the fictional ne’er-do-well. He talks his way into posh company, is equally at home whether womanising, boozing or brawling, and thinks nothing of stealing a priceless Rubens painting from a Dutch museum.

The term demi monde seems to have been invented just to fit the company Paul Eagles kept in the final years of the Naughty Nineties – that’s the 1990s, not the 1890s, just so we’re clear. It seems that there was no drinking den unvisited, no sleazy Mediterranean club unpatronised – and no grim French jail left untenanted.

Paul Eagles rubbed shoulders with some fairly heavy characters during his day job as a lovable rogue, including the Mafia, and the dubious, faceless fixers behind the rise, decline and fall of the disgraced Australian businessman Alan Bond. Now, he has written his life story, and Troubador Books say:

“it’s a quirky and idiosyncratic tale, as much an entertainment
as it is the story of one lucky man’s unconventional life.”

Look out for an interview with Paul Eagles in the next couple of weeks on Fully Booked, and we hope to be offering a copy of this intriguing True Crime book as a prize in an upcoming competition.


CompositeTHE QUESTION WAS …..Which world famous novelist became Walter Mosley’s mentor, and encouraged him to start writing?

The answer is – Edna O’Brien. She was one of his tutors while he was taking a course in creative writing at City College in Harlem, New York. Her words:

“You’re Black, Jewish, with a poor upbringing; there are riches therein.”

 – inspired him and convinced him that he could become a great writer. Thanks to all those who took part in the competition, and the lucky person who was drawn out of the hat of correct answers was DOUG KLEIN Jr, of Leesburg, Ohio. Your prize is on its way, Mr K!


Doris Florence Reeve

“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place,
we stay there, even though we go away.
And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.”

And sometimes, the past is uncomfortably close to the present. Even 80 years on from a tragedy, someone was moved, on a September weekend in 2014, to reach out to the wider world with a reminder of what had happened to their family. To listen to an account of the events of that dramatic weekend in 1933, when Doris Reeve (below) was murdered, click




THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … The Thieves of Threadneedle Street

YOU CAN GO VIA THIS LINK to the excellent feature our guest writer Nicholas Booth has written about one of the most daring attempts at fraud ever attempted in England. Had the gang succeeded, the British banking system might well have collapsed. As it was, those running The Bank of England were just made to look rather foolish.

THE THIEVES OF THREADNEEDLE STREET is a beautifully produced book, and the cover shows a contemporary version of our modern court room sketches, and we can see the gang in all their bristling moustachioed glory.


SOME BOOKS  feel good in the hands and are pleasing to the eye, even before you have turned the first page. This, published by The History Press, is one such book. It is impeccably researched and well sourced, with a comprehensive index. Nicholas Booth’s guest feature on Fully Booked is entertaining as it is, but it merely scratches the surface of an amazing episode in Victorian financial and criminal history.Head over to Amazon to see your options if you want to get your own copy of this book.

BIDWELL DID THE CRIME and served the time, but when he was finally released from prison, he didn’t waste a moment in putting his remarkably tale into print to try and cash in on his infamy. His book sits alongside the lovely back dustjacket of Nicholas Booth’s modern version of the story.



AUSTIN BIDWELL – The fraudster who fooled the Bank of England: part two


AUTHOR NICHOLAS BOOTH continues his amazing tale of a gang of Victorian fraudsters who made the Bank of England look very, very foolish.
Part one of the saga is HERE

ABStill, even under lock and key in Spanish-ruled Havana, Austin Bidwell (right) thought he would get away with it. His absence from London at the most crucial juncture meant, in his estimation, that any evidence against him was hearsay. And, until my research, most of the accounts about the “great forgery” can be classed as the same. All the thieves of Threadneedle Street were inveterate liars and fantasists who shrouded their endeavours in mystery, but even Pinkerton was prone to self-aggrandisement.

For example, in Austin’s later version of events, Willie Pinkerton had suddenly appeared in Cuba, apologised for spoiling a dinner party and announced he had a warrant for the fugitive’s arrest. When offered a glass of wine by the urbane forger, the detective had supposedly agreed, adding: “I never drink anything but Clicquot” and then Austin had pulled a gun, shot a policeman and tried to escape. In Pinkerton’s later recollection, the detective claimed he had “passed the very ship that had Bidwell on board while rounding him into port” and arrested him there and then. But as his own files show, the detective didn’t actually arrive for another two weeks, by which time Austin Bidwell was in custody. Nor was anyone shot. In fact, Pinkerton really got his man by sowing doubts in the mind of his wife.

Jeannie Bidwell had never known what her husband had really been up to. The first she even learned of the great fraud was when American newspapers reported it. (It was to be headline news for weeks on both sides of the Atlantic.) “Who had the audacity to rob the Bank of England!” she exclaimed. “He ought to have a whipping!” Austin wisely said nothing. But when gossipy American expats asked who was behind it all, he smilingly conjectured that it was “some clever young scamp, with plenty of money of his own, who did it for the excitement of the thing and from a wish to take a rise out of John Bull”. Which, from such an incorrigible liar, wasn’t too far from the truth for once.

However, by the time Pinkerton met Jeannie in April 1873, her world had fallen apart – as we can see from hitherto unknown letters to her mother. “One evening we were romping, Austin and I, and a knock came very loudly,” she wrote. After opening the door, “in walked the [local] police”. By the time Pinkerton arrived, and it was left to the detective to explain Austin’s actions – and indeed to embellish them, with tales of bigamy and what Jeannie called “all those other women”.

When Jeannie reproached her husband with this in a letter to his cell, he replied: “Those children of mine and the wife that the detective spoke to you of are my brother’s property. You must allow yourself, dear, that if I was a father at twelve years of age, I began very young.”

Still, Pinkerton became a canny go-between, reading and copying their correspondence – which also revealed beyond any doubt that members of the New York Police Department were involved with the gang. Pinkerton himself promptly arrested a suspected New York “swell thief” who had come as an emissary from the underworld to spring their ally.

What then played out was a game of cat and mouse – and not just in Cuba. George Bidwell George Bidwell0(left)– a baleful influence on his brother – had what he later termed “a series of the most extraordinary adventures” across Ireland and Scotland (“a hell’s chase, and no mistake”) before lapping up the attention at his subsequent trial. Another of the gang, George Macdonnell (“a debonair scoundrel”) made it across the Atlantic where he handed his spoils to corrupt NYPD detectives. “I’m clean,” he taunted Pinkerton’s operatives. “You can’t prove anything on me.”

But Austin was dealing with more than just Pinkerton. As his nemesis – to quote the Bank’s solicitors, Freshfields – an “adversary whom the forgers had least of all suspected had sprung up: that is to say, [his] mother-in-law”.

Though she had reluctantly attended the Bidwells’ wedding, Mrs Devereux actually fainted during the ceremony and was certain that her son-in-law was up to no good. So when the police alerted the London press that Mr Warren/Horton had been “accompanied by a young woman 18 to 20 years, looks younger with golden hair”, Mrs Devereux knew perfectly well who that was and went to the nearest solicitors. Before long, a letter from Jeannie to her mother with a St Thomas stamp arrived, the search zeroed in on the Caribbean, and Pinkerton learned of a glamorous young couple who had recently arrived in Havana. An “all points” bulletin, issued on the evidence of Jeannie’s mother, led to Austin being put under guard. By the time he arrived in Cuba, Pinkerton was certain the authorities had been bribed to look the other way. Austin Bidwell had been allowed to spend the first night of his detention in his luxurious hotel, the Telegrafo. And when the police moved him to barracks, they failed to search him, provided him with gourmet meals and let him receive visitors. Pinkerton knew well what his quarry was capable of. Indeed, over Easter, Austin escaped, and he was only apprehended after crossing swords with a Cuban captain, some 50 miles from Havana.

In Austin Bidwell’s version of the escape, he had made a dramatic leap from a balcony into the crowded street below. As Pinkerton determined, the fall would have killed him, and he had simply bribed his warders. But then, money – and the want of it – was at the heart of Bidwell’s story. And even in what the Lord Chief Justice later described as “the most remarkable trial that ever occurred in the annals of England”, scant attention was paid to the human cost, certainly by the criminals. Both Bidwell brothers were sentenced to life with penal servitude (though they were released in the 1890s). And George later noted they had left behind “no ruined widows and orphans to linger out the remainder of their blighted lives in poverty”. Which was not quite true.

Bidwell Trial

The Bidwell gang stand trial in London

Jeannie endured a terrifying episode on the Bidwells’ return to London in May. (Austin was consigned to Newgate jail; she went back to her mother.) Having become pregnant in Cuba, one evening in September she went into labour. A little girl briefly came into the world and moments later passed away, while Jeannie herself nearly died. The dead infant was wrapped in a night shirt and dispatched by carriage to an undertaker, chosen at random from a directory. This was technically illegal, as she had not obtained a death certificate, and the police soon traced the unfortunate family.

Two weeks later, Jeannie Bidwell was arrested and taken to Bow Street Magistrates Court. Because she was so young and ill, and had already suffered so much, there was a great deal of sympathy. Jeannie’s mother – “a well dressed woman of respectable appearance” in one report – and a servant were also placed in the dock. All three were bailed but at the start of October, their cases were dismissed.


Wiser and cooler heads had prevailed. For once, the Victorian legal system was compassionate and realised that the poor girl had suffered enough. While Austin Bidwell found it amusing that he had embarrassed the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street (above)  by holding “up to the laughter of the whole world its red-tape idiotic management”, poor Jeannie Bidwell was sent to a workhouse in nearby St Giles, becoming the one indisputable victim of the greatest ever forgery in history.

The article first appeared in The Independent in 2015,
and is used with the permission of the author

For a closer look at Nicholas Booth’s comprehensive account of this remarkable case,


JIM KELLY … A landscape of secrets

jim kelly Small_0JIM KELLY (above) grew up in the shadow of some of the worst criminal misdeeds the country had ever experienced and, as his childhood progressed, the evil that men do was seldom far away from the Kelly family. So, he had a brutal and disadvantaged upbringing? No, far from it – just the opposite. His father Brian was a top detective in the Metropolitan Police, and his maternal grandfather, too, had a background in keeping the peace as a special constable – he actually was there on the street, as it were, in 1911, when Home Secretary Winston Churchill and others managed to turn a hunt for anarchist criminals into the expensive and bungled farce that we know as the Siege of Sidney Street.

 Kelly was born in Barnet, originally a small Hertfordshire town, but now a borough long since absorbed into the suburban sprawl of north London. It was near Barnet on 14th April 1471, that one of the most influential battles of the Wars of The Roses secured the throne for the Yorkist King Edward IV. The only battles that Kelly recalls were, however, between his beloved Barnet Town Football Club and their rivals. ‘The Bees’ have been back and forth between league and non-league football over the years, with all the regularity of a fiddler’s elbow, but as long as hope springs eternal in the human breast, Barnet can be sure of at least one man’s loyalty.

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 19.40.08

After several years in journalism, which culminated in writing for The Financial Times, Kelly decided to put his skills to the ultimate test. He would become a full time novelist. By this time, he and his family had moved to the beautiful Cambridgeshire cathedral city of Ely, which had all the advantages of wide open spaces as well as the crucial railway connection to London. Before we continue, a word from one who knows. Ely is, geographically, in Fenland – an area of such fertile soil that it is said that a man only has to spit on the black soil for it to start growing into something productive. But Ely, with its tea-rooms, artisan bakeries, arts centre and elegant cafés may be in The Fens, but it is certainly not of The Fens. To explore the real Fenland, the traveler must visit such hard-scrabble towns and villages as Wisbech, Chatteris, March, Welney and Three Holes. It is among these sometimes insalubrious settlements that Kelly sets the series that first brought him to public attention.

Philip Dryden is the editor of Ely’s local newspaper. When he was first introduced, in The Waterclock (2002), local ‘rags’ had yet to feel the full force of digital competition, but they were already on the rocky road of no longer charging a cover price, but giving themselves away for nothing, hoping to cover costs from advertising revenue.

In Kelly’s books there is always a sense of déjà vu, of history coming back to bite people on the bum, and a telling awareness that despite tomorrow being another day, it is yesterday that casts the longer shadow on people’s lives. This is even evident in the fact that Dryden’s exotic wife Laura is lying alive, but insensate, in an Ely hospital. She is there as a result of a catastrophic road accident when she and Dryden ended up in a deep Fen ditch late on a winter’s night. When I first met Kelly, he came and spoke about his books at my local library. He revealed that one of his favourite authors is Dorothy L Sayers. And how does her most celebrated book begin?

“That’s torn it!” said Lord Peter Wimsey.
The car lay helpless and ridiculous, her nose deep in the ditch,
her back wheels cocked absurdly up on the bank,
as though she were doing her best to bolt to earth
and were scraping herself a burrow beneath the drifting snow.

Thus Lord Peter Wimsey and the faithful Bunter have to seek the help of the inhabitants of Fenchurch St Paul and, in doing so, become involved in the celebrated mystery of The Nine Tailors. The Sayers connection is further developed by Kelly in his novel The Funeral Owl (2013), the most recent Philip Dryden mystery, where much of the action is centred in the Fen village of Brimstone Hill. This village is easily identifiable on the ground as Christchurch, which is little more than a huddle of houses in the lonely expanse of flat farmland between March and Ely. And who was the Rector of the little Victorian church in the village (below), between 1917 and 1928? The Reverend Henry Sayers, whose daughter went on to become one of the great literary figures of her day, and also a member of the elite writers of Golden Age crime fiction.


Like all amateur detectives, Dryden sticks his nose into places where it is likely to get stung or at least severely nipped. The fact that he lives on a houseboat moored on Ely’s River Great Ouse always adds a touch of the exotic, but his day job as newspaper man allows him access to places that mere interested passers by could never penetrate. After refusing ever to drive again after the accident which left his wife paralysed, Dryden relies for transport on an obese and sedentary taxi driver called Humph. Humph serves several functions, including playing the role of a Greek chorus, commenting on and observing at a small distance the complications and dramas with which his regular customer involves himself. On a less cerebral level Humph has an inexhaustible supply of snacks, as well as an impressive collection of spirit miniatures harvested during his frequent trips to Stansted airport.

Kelly’s other crime fiction series hovers closer to the police procedural landing strip than the Philip Dryden novels. Peter Shaw is a high-ranking detective based in King’s Lynn. He too has his Watson, but in this case it is in the form of the taciturn and misanthropic copper, Sergeant Valentine. Kelly’s portrayal of King’s Lynn is as accurate and revealing as his frank picture of the bleak, inhospitable, historically incestuous and endlessly resentful villages of Fenland. Lynn, as it is known to locals, is also a paradox. On the one hand we have the magnificent churches, the prestigious Festival, and the unbreakable connection with a certain family who have a country home just up the road in Sandringham. But we also have the rough estates, the ill-at-ease migrant workers, and the tough-as-teak descendants of the fishermen who once sailed out of Lynn in search of seafood for the tables of rich men in their castles.

Like Dryden, Shaw is a complex character. He conceals from his bosses the fact that he may be losing his sight as a result of an old injury. His father – like Kelly’s – was a hugely respected policeman. Unlike Detective Superintendent Brian Kelly, however, Shaw père may not have been as honest as the day is long. In recent Peter Shaw novels, readers have been taken away from King’s Lynn and led up the Norfolk coast to such places as Brancaster and Holme. This part of Norfolk has been called Chelsea-on-Sea, due to the rising numbers of wealthy second-homers who have invested money, if not time, in the area. Shaw’s beautiful wife, who runs a beach shop and store at Hunstanton, and our man’s part-time job as a member of the local lifeboat crew, certainly add depth to the character.

As a master of landscape and what has been called pyschogeography – the invisible pull that past deeds, embedded in the fabric of buildings and streets, exert on modern day events – Jim Kelly has only one equal, and that is Christopher Fowler, whose elderly detectives Bryant and May are always jerked this way and that by the powerful magnets of history which lie beneath the streets of London.

If you are yet to read one of Kelly’s novels, then you should do so as soon as possible. If, like me, you are a devout disciple, then I hope that I have summed up just a hint of the man’s magical writings.I am presenting the two series of novels as separate graphics, but you can find out more by visiting Jim Kelly’s Amazon page.




Peter Shaw



THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Beneath The Surface

Beneath The SurfaceIRISH CRIME FICTION seems to be on a roll at the moment. With writers like Anthony Quinn, Stuart Neville, Ken Bruen, John McAllister and Sinead Crowley making headlines, it’s not too fanciful to see Ireland – North and South – rivaling its neighbour across the sea, Scotland, as everyone’s favourite setting for moody and intense crime tales. Is there room for one more at the top table of Irish crime? There certainly is, when it’s Jo Spain asking for a seat. Her debut novel With Our Blessing was named as an Irish Times crime fiction book of the year by Declan Burke in 2015, and achieved great critical acclaim.

Now, DI Tom Reynolds and his team return for another sortie against the many-headed monster of Irish crime. This time a government official is murdered in Leinster House, the former ducal residence in Dublin which has housed the Irish Parliament since 1922.

Everyone makes the assumption, that Ryan Finnegan’s death has been orchestrated by one of his political opponents, but before too long, Reynolds is uncovering evidence that points in a different direction altogether. The novel will be available very soon from the usual sources, and it looks from this angle that Jo Spain (below) and her publishers Quercus, have another hit on their hands. You can also keep in touch with Jo by following her on Twitter.

Jo Spain


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