Search

fullybooked2017

Date

November 14, 2021

CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND. . . 6: Worcester and Bath

CAE HEADER

Just 50 miles or so from the town of Shrewsbury is Worcester and it is here, more or less inhabiting the same time frame as Cadfael, we find Under-Sheriff Hugh Bradecote and his rough-hewn assistant, Serjeant Catchpoll. Worcester, at that time, was a busy market town, and it would be many years before the Benedictine Priory would be transformed into what is now Worcester cathedral.

WolfBRTAuthor Sarah Hawkswood is a serious academic historian, and she has set the series against the political and military turmoil that prevailed during the reign of King Stephen, and his war with the Empress Matilda. Such was the insularity of even relatively large towns like Worcester, however, that national events can take weeks and months to impinge on the lives of townsfolk and villagers. Hawkswood paints a picture of a time that was a brutal struggle for the majority of the population. Disease, hunger, violence and intemperate weather were constant threats, but in these novels we come to appreciate the rhythm of the seasons and the wildness of the landscape beyond the scattered villages and hamlets.

Best of all, though, is the fact that these are great crime novels, with tantalising plots and storylines in the great tradition of detectives and detecting. Sarah Hawkswood’s website is here, and you can also read detailed reviews by clicking on the cover images in this feature.

ROS

Screen Shot 2021-11-14 at 19.45.58To Bath now, and a character created by (I think) Britain’s longest living (and still writing good books) crime author. Peter Lovesey was born in Middlesex in September 1936 and, after National Service and a career in teaching, he published his first novel in 1970. Wobble To Death was the first of a hugely successful series of historical novels featuring Sergeant Daniel Cribb and his assistant Constable Thackeray. Older readers will remember the superb BBC TV adaptations starring Alan Dobie (left) as Cribb. The stories were also dramatised by BBC radio.

Screen Shot 2021-11-14 at 19.40.14

But Cribb was very much rooted in London, and we must look at a more modern detective, plying his trade in the ancient town of Bath, with its Roman baths and glorious Georgian heritage. We first met Peter Diamond in 1991, in The Last Detective. The title refers to Diamond’s outright reluctance to adopt modern technology, as he sees gadgets and gizmos as the enemy of good old fashioned police work. Lovesey describes his man:

Difficult to tell whether Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, on duty in the gardens, was overt or covert. If he had been in the race, you might have taken him for one of the jokers in fancy dress. He might have stepped out of a nineteen-forties film, a sleuth on the trail of Sydney Greenstreet. The gabardine trench coat and dark brown trilby, his so-called plain clothes, weren’t plain at all in twenty-first century Bath.”

In The Last Detective the naked body of a woman is found floating in the weeds in a lake near Bath with no one willing to identify her, and neither marks nor murder weapon. Diamond’s reliance on tried and trusted methods  are tested to the limit. Struggling with a jigsaw puzzle of truant choirboys, teddy bears, a black Mercedes and Jane Austen memorabilia, Diamond doggedly stays on the trail of the killer even after this bosses have decided there’s enough evidence to make a conviction.If you click the image below you can read my review of the 2020 novel, The Finisher.

finisher019

 

THE DUBLIN RAILWAY MURDER . . . Between the covers

drm header018

It is a November evening in 1856, and we are in Galway, the city on the west coast of Ireland. A mail train is due to leave to cross the country to Dublin, a distance of some 125 miles. On its way, the train will call at many stations, some no bigger than halts, and collect cash boxes containing the day’s takings. These boxes will, eventually, find their way into an office in Dublin’s Broadstone Station, the headquarters of the Midland Great Western Railway Company. Thee cash boxes will be emptied, the cash counted and the sums entered into the ledgers by 42 year-old George Little, the chief cashier.

Little was a modest man of good education, but the cruelties of fate had left him the sole provider for four widows – his mother, his aunt and his sister. His diligence, attention to detail and willingness to work whatever hours it took to get the job done had endeared him to his superiors, and he was highly thought of – if not lavishly well paid. Little was known to stay after hours if there was a particularly large amount of money to deal with, but was always at work on the dot the next morning.

It was lunchtime on Friday 14th November before anyone suspected that something might be wrong; Little’s sister, Kate, had come to the station to ask after her brother, who had not come home the previous evening. His office, however, is locked. When the worthies of the MGWR eventually manage to break in to George Little’s office, they are faced with a scene from hell.


DRM body text

What follows is a classic locked room mystery as the police hunt for the killer of George Little.  Even establishing a motive is a puzzle, as most of the money George had been counting was still there in various piles on his office table. The initial investigation is lead by three Dublin detectives – Acting Inspector Daniel Ryan and his two subordinates, Sergeants Craven and Murphy. Try as they might, their enquiries uncover more questions than answers, and Superintended Augusts Dye is brought in to head up the hunt for the killer.

drm engine019 copy

Days, weeks and then months go by. Suspects come and go, and are released for lack of evidence and motive. Fast forward now to Wednesday 24th June 1857. Crown Solicitor Thomas Kemmis, who had initially been involved with the murder investigation was working from home – a handsome house in Kildare Street, Dublin. A servant announces that he has a visitor, and a middle aged woman is shown into the room. She is Mary Spollin, and she has an astonishing piece of news. She tells Kemmis that her husband James – a local painter and handyman – is the murderer of George LIttle. Her evidence is clear and damning, and James Spollin is arrested.

There is a problem, however, for the legal team. Under the law, a wife is not allowed to give evidence against her husband in a criminal trial unless she herself is the victim. It also becomes abundantly clear that the relationship between James and Mary Spollin is, to put it bluntly, a poisonous one. When Spollin’s trial, presided over by Lord Chief Justice Thomas Langlois Lefroy and Chief Justice James Henry Monahan, the accused man’s defence team are not slow to capitalise on this. A contemporary engraving (below) shows Spollin in the dock.

drm spollin021

On Tuesday 11th August 1857, shortly after 4.00pm, the jury in the trial of James Spollin returned to the courtroom, having reached their verdict.
“Mr Alley, the clerk of the court, called out the names of the jurors to check they were all present.
When he was satisfied, he asked, ‘Gentlemen of the jury, do you agree on your verdict?’
‘Yes,’ said the foreman, handing him a piece of paper.
James Spollin had risen from his seat in the dock and leant uneasily on the railing in front of him. Mr Alley unfolded the slip and examined its contents carefully. The courtroom remained in breathless silence as he lifted his eyes and  announced in a sonorous voice:
‘You say James Spollin is not guilty.'”
Spollin Liverpool

Astonishingly, James Spollin went on to capitalise on his notoriety by going on tour with a kind of celebrity show, which included, among other exhibits, a scale model of the scene of the crime. He then emigrated to America. Author Thomas Morris has written a book which brings Victorian Dublin to life, and he written as erudite, well researched and entertaining a True Crime story as you could wish to read. It is published by Harvill Secker and is out now.

Spollin departure

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑