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October 2022

FOUR THOUSAND DAYS Days . . . Between the covers

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I am pushed to think of another modern writer who is more prolific, but yet so consistently readable as MJ Trow. Not only that, until a few years ago he actually ‘worked for a living’ outside of his writing career. He and I walked along one or two shared paths. We went to the same school, but I was a couple of years ahead of him, and neither of us noticed one another’s presence. We both took up a career in teaching, and shared a deep contempt for the corporate management styles in English comprehensive schools. He exploited that in his superb series centred on the world of Peter ‘Mad’ Maxwell, Head of History at a fictional school in the Isle of Wight. I say fictional, but Maxwell was, to all intents and purposes, the author himself. One imagines (and hopes) that the murders in the books were purely imaginary ones, but the troubled and often complex teenagers and preposterous members of the Senior Leadership Team were all too true to life.

Before Maxwell came Trow’s homage to Conan Doyle’s Inspector Lestrade. Bumbling and incompetent in the original books, Lestrade is portrayed by Trow as a decent copper, nobody’s fool, and doing his best, but frequently upstaged by his flashier nemesis from Baker Street. There are also series featuring Kit Marlowe, the Elizabethan dramatist, here recast as one of Gloriana’s secret agents. I have also enjoyed the Grand and Batchelor Victorian mysteries. Trow is a great humorist and punster. mixing comedy and word play with superb plotting and  – the real pull, for me – the introduction of real historical characters in to the narrative. In addition he has written extensively in other genres, including True Crime.

Having just realised I am over 200 words into the review without mentioning the book in question, I must get back on task. Margaret Murray was the first celebrated woman archaeologist, and in Four Thousand Days she is at the centre of an intriguing mystery. We are in London, October 1900, and while the Boer War is still very much alive, the Boer leader Paul Kruger has fled to Europe, the ‘game’ is pretty much over, and the first British troops are returning from South Africa.

A young woman is found dead, apparently by her own hand, in a sleazy tenement bedroom. Further investigation reveals that she led at least two different lives, one as a prostitute, but another as a modest and attentive student, a regular attendee at Margaret Murray’s free Friday afternoon lectures at University College London. Another student of Em-Em, (Margaret Murray) Angela Friend, is drawn into the case by her soon-to-be boyfriend, Police Constable Adam Crawford.

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Enter another real-life character in the shape of retired copper, Edmund Reid (above). Troubled by the recent death of his wife and his conspicuous failure a dozen years earlier to catch Jack the Ripper, he has resigned himself to a solitary existence down in Hampton on Sea, a village near Herne Bay in Kent. Hampton would eventually be obliterated by erosion and the force of the waves, but an early part of this process – the collapse of a sand dune – reveals to Reid the body of another woman, dead for some time. The fact she was another archaeologist, is too much of a coincidence. It transpires that she was attempting to excavate a Roman coastal fort. What she found – and was murdered for – has the potential to turn Christian history on its head. He teams up with Margaret Murray to solve the mystery. The book’s enigmatic title? All is revealed in the final pages, but I will not spoil it for you.

Trow introduces other historical characters, and one of his many skills is to make us believe that how they behave in his book is just how they were in real life. As in all of his novels, Trow reminds us in Four Thousand Days that his grasp of history is second to none. Add that to his wizardry as a storyteller, and you have a winning combination. Four Thousand Days is published by Severn House and is available now.

For more on the novels of MJ Trow, click the image below.

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MARY ANN GARNER . . . A life and death (2)

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SO FAR: March 1891. Mary Ann Garner, a 32 year-old widow, is living with her three children and teenage step son in a tiny end-of-terrace cottage in Stanley Place, Lincoln. She has been in a relationship with Arthur Spencer, a 22 year-old pork butcher. He has asked her to marry him, but she has refused. Spencer has not taken kindly to the snub.

On the evening of Monday 30th March Arthur Spencer arrived at 19 Stanley Place. He knocked at the door, and Mary Ann’s step son, John Henry Garner answered the knock. The subsequent conversation was later reported in court:
Mary Ann said, “Who’s there?”
“It’s me,” answered Spencer. (Earlier, Spencer had threatened to shoot Mary Ann and then himself if she wouldn’t marry him. She had not taken him seriously.)
She called out, “Have you got that pop-gun?”
Spencer replied, “No.”
Mary Ann said, “Let him in, John.”

At a court hearing, it was revealed that Mary Ann, despite appearing not to take Spencer’s threat seriously had thought of contacting the police. Spencer had previously lodged at the house, and she assumed that the young man had come back to collect his clothes and belongings. The sequence of events that followed was reported in a newspaper.

The shooting

Mary Ann was, sadly, beyond medical help, and she died in the small hours of the Tuesday morning. Spencer had been true to his word, and turned the gun on himself. It is debatable whether he exhibited the same fatal intent, however, as although he was taken to hospital, he was well enough to appear in court within a few days, charged with the murder of Mary Ann Garner.

At the subsequent coroner’s inquest, the effect of Spencer’s bullets was revealed:

“There is not much to add to the details published yesterday of the dreadful tragedy at Lincoln, except perhaps that later information only tends to intensify the horror which was felt at the cold-blooded premeditation of the murderer, for it was found at the post-mortem examination held on the body of the unfortunate victim that her assailant had fired four shots at her from the revolver. Two of these did no injury beyond causing superficial wounds on the woman’s body, but one fired into her breast and another at her back were both serious wounds. Either of them would have proved fatal.”

The melancholy sequence of events that follows a murder took their course. Mary Ann Garner was buried in Canwick Road cemetery on 3rd April, 1891. Arthur Spencer was brought before a coroner’s inquest, then the magistrates’ court, and finally the Assizes Court at Lincoln in July, where he appeared before Mr Justice Roland Vaughan Williams (below left), an uncle of the celebrated composer. The conclusion was inevitable, and on Tuesday 28th July, Arthur Spencer paid the ultimate price for killing Mary Ann Garner. The hangman was James Berry (below right)

Execution

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The Gods of Misfortune had not finished their business with Mary Ann’s family, however. On Friday 28th June 1895, a newspaper ran this story:

Lightning

It is a sad reflection on life that most murderers are men, and their victims are frequently women. The women should not be forgotten in Lincolnshire or anywhere else. Click the names below to read the stories of Lincolnshire women who met their deaths at the hands of men. By doing so, you will not bring them back to life, but at least they will not be forgotten. They are in chronological order according to when they were killed.

Louisa Hodgson
Louisa Hay
Mary Ann Garner
Harriet Rushby
Mary Eliza Bell
Ellen Kirk
Lucy Lingard
Sarah Ann Smith
Catherine Gear
Ivy Dora Prentice
Minnie Eleanor Kirby
Janice Holmes

MARY ANN GARNER . . . A life and death (1)

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Mary Ann Elizabeth Witrick (or Witterick) was born in Wereham, Norfolk in 1857. Her baptism (above) is recorded in the village church (below) as taking place in 1859. Her parents, John and Ann (née Rust) were poor, hard-working and, like so many other families across the land, produced children on a regular basis. There was no contraception other than abstinence, and child mortality tended to keep a lid on the birth-rate.

St Margarets Wereham

Her life was to end, violently, in a Lincoln terraced house on the evening of 31st March 1891. We know that the family were still in Wereham in 1861, but the remainder of her youth  – and where she spent it – remains something of a mystery. We do know that in 1880, she married a Lincoln widower, Henry Garner. Garner’s wife Charlotte (née Foster) had died in 1879. They had one son, John Henry, who had been born on 23rd April 1875. Mary Ann and Henry went on to have three children, Arthur Garner (b1882) Ernest Witterick Garner (b1883) and Ada Florence Garner (b1886).

Bracebridge

What was to be a run of misfortune for Mary Ann Garner began in 1889, with the death of her husband. He died on 19th August 1889, in Lincoln Lunatic Asylum, Bracebridge (above). ‘Bracebridge’ was a potent word in Lincolnshire, certainly when I was growing up. I spent many hours being looked after by my grandmother in Louth, and when I played her up (which was frequently) she didn’t mince her words. “You’ll have me in Bracebridge, you little bugger!”

Henry Garner had just turned 40.  I can only speculate on his cause of death. One possibility might be, given his age, was what was euphemised as GPI (General Paralysis of the Insane) or Paresis. When researching family history one has to be prepared for unpleasant surprises, as was the case with my great grandfather. He died in an asylum, of Paresis. It is actually the final and fatal stages of syphilis. The disease could be contracted when young, but then the visible symptoms would disappear, only for the disease to return later in life, manifesting itself as delusions of grandeur, erratic behaviour, brain inflammation and, finally, death.

It is unlikely that Henry Garner left his widow very much by way of an inheritance. The early spring of 1891 found her in a tiny end-of-terrace, 19 Stanley Place, pictured below as it is now. To make ends meet, she was taking in washing and, according to a newspaper report, was also taking in lodgers. This is scarcely credible from a modern viewpoint, looking at the size of the house, but that was a very different time in terms of privacy and living space.

Stanley Place

At some point after the death of her husband, Mary Ann met a young man called Arthur Spencer. He was ten years her junior and came originally from Blyth in Nottinghamshire. His trade was pork butcher. For a time, he lodged at 19 Stanley Place, and one must assume that he shared Mary Ann’s bed. He asked her to marry him, but she refused, saying they were better off apart. After this, he left the house, and went back to live over the shop where he worked. Spencer was clearly besotted with Mary Ann, and on the evening of Sunday 29th March, he returned to Stanley Place and told her that if she wouldn’t marry him, he would shoot her and then turn the gun on himself. Mary Ann did not take him seriously, and sent him packing. The following evening, 30th March, Spencer came again to see Mary Ann. A newspaper reported, rather cryptically:

“They appear to have gone upstairs together, leaving the eldest child, a boy of 14, in the kitchen, the other children being in bed.”

What happened next was to send a shudder or revulsion through both the citizens of Lincoln, and cities, towns and villages across the land.

IN PART TWO
Gunshots
Trial and retribution

STAY BURIED . . . Between the covers

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Screen Shot 2022-10-01 at 19.38.56Writing as Katherine Webb, the author (left) is a well established writer of several books which seem to be in the romantic/historical/mystery genre, but I believe this is her first novel with both feet firmly planted on the  terra firma  of crime fiction. Wiltshire copper DI Matthew Lockyer, after a professional error of judgment, has been sidelined into a Cold Case unit, consisting of himself and Constable Gemma Broad.

He receives a telephone call from a most unexpected source. His caller is Hedy Lambert, a woman he helped convict of murder fourteen years earlier. The case was full of unexpected twists and turns, none more bizarre than the identity of the victim.  Harry, son of Emeritus Professor Roland Ferris had left home as a teenager and, seemingly, vanished from the face of the earth. Then he returns home to the Wiltshire village where his father lives. This variation on the tale of The Prodigal Son, takes a turn for the worse, however, when Harry’s dead body is discovered, and standing over it, clutching the murder weapon, is Ferris’s housekeeper Hedy Lambert. Problem is, it’s not Harry Ferris.

After a few days it transpires the the murder victim is actually Mickey Brown, a Traveller, who superficially resembles Harry. Despite the absence of any plausible motive Hedy Lambert is convicted of murder and found guilty, condemned almost entirely by  convincing forensic evidence. Now, Lambert has telephoned Lockyer from her prison to tell him that the real Harry Ferris has returned to his father’s house. Lockyer visits Longacres, Ferris’s house in the village of Stoke Lavington, to find the old man at death’s door with cancer of the blood and Harry Ferris totally unwilling to co-operate with the re-opening of the murder case.

As the story develops, we learn more about Lockyer and his background. His parents are what Americans call hardscrabble farmers, elderly and increasingly unable to make a living out of the farm or see any fruits for their lifetime of hard work. The obvious person to take over the farm was Lockyer’s brother Chris, but he is long dead, having been stabbed in a fracas outside a local pub. His killer has never been brought to justice.

One of the many admirable qualities of this book is that Kate Webb doesn’t take any prisoners in her portrayal of rural Wiltshire. Yes, there are obviously some beautiful places, but there are also farms which are bleak, wind-swept and run-down; there are villages and small towns with rough and tumble pubs which are no strangers to violence. Please don’t expect the sun-kissed limestone cottages and trim thatched roofs of Midsomer; this is Wiltshire in winter from a literal point of view, and metaphorically it is darker territory altogether.

On one level, Stay Buried is a superior whodunnit, as by the half way point Kate Webb has presented us with a tasty line-up of possible killers. There is Paul Rifkin, Ferris’s factotum, the real Harry Ferris, Tor Gravich, the young research assistant who was in Longacres at the time of the murder, Sean Hannington, a violent Traveller thug with a grudge against Mickey Brown, Serena Godwin, and even Roland Ferris himself. Or are we being led up the garden path, and is the killer Hedy Lambert after all? The eventual solution is elegant, complex and unexpected. On another level altogether, the book is a forensic examination of the nature of grief, guilt, and the corrosive effect of harbouring a desire for revenge.

This is excellent crime fiction, with a central character who has the quirks and flaws to make him totally credible. The geographical backdrop against which DI Matt Lockyer does his job is painted ‘warts and all’, lending a psychological darkness to proceedings. Stay Buried is published by Quercus and will available as listed below:

Kindle – 27th October 2022
Audiobook – 27th October 2022
Hardcover – 19th January 2023
Paperback – 29th July 2023

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