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April 16, 2021

BENEATH BLACKWATER RIVER . . . Between the covers

She looked alive, her hair drifting freely in the water, her red lips gently parted, as if to let her final breath escape. A small locket floated by her face, attached to her neck with a silver chain…”She looked alive, her hair drifting freely in the water, her red lips gently parted, as if to let her final breath escape. A small locket floated by her face, attached to her neck with a silver chain…

There are times when a book’s plot is so complex that it doesn’t hurt to pause at the half way mark and ask. “what do we know?” Beneath Blackwater River is the latest novel from American novelist Leslie Wolfe (above), and is one such book. Firstly, the author herself. Her website says, “She creates unforgettable, brilliant, strong women heroes who deliver fast-paced, satisfying suspense, backed up by extensive background research in technology and psychology.” The central figure in this book is former FBI profiler Kay Sharp. She is now working as a relatively junior detective in a California sheriff’s department. Thus far in the book, we have, in no particular order:

  • A young woman is found dead, her throat recently slashed, beneath the waters of a mountain river.
  • She is initially mis-identified by investigating officers.
  • One identity was that of a girl from a very poor home; the other girl comes from a rich family.
  • In another part of the country, a teenage runaway is abducted by a mysterious man, known only as Triple-Dollar-Sign.
  • Detective Kay Sharp is sheltering, in the home she shares with her brother, the battered wife of a fellow officer.
  • The abusive officer is in the pay of an as-yet-unidentified person – with money.

Leslie Wolfe has, then, set several hares running, to use the venerable English metaphor. The rogue cop – Herb Scott – is a truly nasty piece of work, and seems to have half the Sheriff’s Department under his thumb, as when his wife, Nicole, has reported her many beatings as a crime, nothing ever happens. The mis-identification of the murdered girl is a seemingly unsolvable mystery. Were there ever two girls, or are they one and the same? Does the conundrum stem from a complex inheritance issue involving the wealthy Caldwell family? The Caldwells are magnificently disfunctional, riven with bitterness and jealousy, and to spice matters up even more, there is the deadly whiff of incest in the air.

Meanwhile, the runaway teenagerKirsten – has fallen into the hands of a psychopath who seems to have loved and lost a beautiful girl at some stage in the past; now, he seeks out young women who resemble his lost love; when, inevitably, they don’t match up to his distorted memories, they are done away with. At the half way stage I was scratching my head to think how could Leslie Wolfe ever tie up the apparently unconnected story lines, but she does it with all the flourish of a stage magician dazzling the audience with a seemingly impossible sleight of hand. Readers who love a fast-moving melodrama will not be disappointed here.

Beneath Blackwater River is published by Bookouture, and will be available as a Kindle and an audiobook on 23rd April which, as I’m sure you’re aware, is both St George’s Day and the birthday of William Shakespeare.

DEATH IN DARK WATER . . . The murder of Ann Chapman (2)

SO FAR – Saturday 16th April, 1870. Thomas Chapman and his wife Ann have gone out for a walk together, leaving heir children at home in Linen Street Warwick, with Ann’s parents. Neither would ever return to that back-to-back terraced house.

Thomas Chapman’s father lived in Friar’s Court, Warwick. At 1.00 am on the morning of 17th April, he was awakened by a loud banging on his front door. Opening it, he was astonished to see his son, bedraggled, and apparently soaked to the skin. He said to his father:
“I have killed Ann, and now I have come home to die with you.”
Thinking his son to be either drunk or muddled, the elder Chapman made his son take off his clothes and sent him upstairs to lie down. After a few hours, however, Thomas Chapman convinced his father that he had,indeed, killed Ann,and the air set off together to the police station. PC Satchwell later gave this statement to the magistrates.

Confession

Taking Chapman seriously now, a party of constables took drags – large iron rakes on the end of ropes – and set off for Leam Bridge. They noted that there were signs of a struggle on the canal towpath, and they set about the melancholy business of searching for Ann Chapman. After about twenty minutes they found her, and brought her up out of the water. She was taken back to Warwick on a cart, covered in blankets, and Thomas Chapman was charged with her murder.

As was usual with these matters, a Magistrate’s hearing and a Coroner’s inquest were quickly convened. At the inquest, Mr Bullock, a surgeon reported what he had found.

Inquest

Chapman’s confession was graphic, and told of how his grievances against Ann’s behaviour with other men had been festering for some time:

“Last night I went home about six o’clock, and gave my money to her mother. We lived with her. I stayed at home till went out with my wife. I told her we would go to Leamington and look round there. We started a little after nine o’clock. We called at Page’s near the chapel and had a pint of ale. That is all I had all the night. We looked in the shop windows, and went on to Emscote cut bridge. I said, “Come on this way”. She said she did not like to the water side. She was all of a tremble. I said, “What makes you tremble? What have you to tremble for – I said if she would come along there we could get out the Leam Bridge on the Old Road.

We were talking as we were going along the cut side. I said I was sure the last child was not mine. She said none of the children were mine. She said. “No, you scamp, none of them are yours.” She said, “I have deceived you a good while.” When got under the Leam Bridge I pushed her into the water, and as she was going in she laid hold of me and pulled me into the water, I could not get away from her for a long while. She kept fast hold of me. She had liked to have drowned me. I got away from her and got out of the water, and lay down on the grass. I could not walk I was wet. The water was up my chin. I could not touch the bottom.

I threw my old jacket into the water. I got on the Old Road. man passed me against lawyer Heath’s. I made up my mind to drown her before went out of the house. I went my father’s house about one o’clock, changed clothes and lay down on the bed. I have been away from home three months together. When I last came home she held the last child up and said, “Here’s pattern for you; do you think you could get such a one as this ?”

By the time Chapman’s case eventually came to Warwick Assizes, it had clearly dawned on him that it was likely he was going to be hanged, and it was reported that he had been busy trying to convince the authorities that he was insane. What appears to be play-acting cut no ice with the doctors, and they testified that he was perfectly sane, both then and at the time of Ann’s death. Remarkably, the jury – all male, remember – were sufficiently sympathetic with Chapman’s bruised ego that they found him guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter, and he was sentenced to life. What became of him, I don’t know. In those days life meant life, and so it may well be that he died in prison.

What became of the Chapman children is another mystery. The 1871 census has Francis and Mary Dodson – Anna’s parents – living at 12 Union Building, both on ‘Parish Relief’. This had nothing to do with church parishes, but was a form of benefit based on what we now call local government wards. In practice, it was patchy, and depended on the ability of a particular parish to levy rates, and then distribute a portion to the needy.

To me, it is absolutely clear that Thomas Chapman murdered his wife. He pushed her into the murky depths of the Warwick and Napton Canal with one purpose, and one purpose only – to pay her out for her infidelity and taunts about the parentage of her children. His bizarre attempts to convince the authorities that he was insane suggest that he knew he was facing the hangman’s noose. Why judge and jury deemed his crime manslaughter baffles me. What became of him, and whether he survived the Victorian prison system, I cannot say. What I do know is that the dark and gloomy spot where the canal passes under Myton Road is forever tainted by the struggles of a young woman pushed down into the unforgiving depths by an angry and violent man.

Thanks again to Simon Dunne and Steve Bap for the photographs

 

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