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DEATH COMES TO NEWMARKET . . . A savage murder in Victorian Louth (3)

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PART THREE

SO FAR – On the evening of Sunday 7th March, 1875, 22 year-old Louisa Hodgson is stabbed to death in the family home on Newmarket. Her killer, suitor Peter Blanchard, has been arrested and is awaiting trial at Lincoln Assizes.

It is worth, at this point – with Louisa dead and buried and Peter languishing in a prison cell – to examine the background – to the killing. It emerged during the investigation that all was not well between Louisa and Peter. While Mr Hodgson kept out of things, Louisa’s mother was beginning to frown on the relationship., partly because Peter Blanchard was subject to epileptic fits.

There is also the question of Peter Blanchard’s jealousy. Was there a rival for Louisa’s affections? At the inquest, evidence was given by John Campion:

“I am a farmer residing in Brackenborough Lane, Louth. I was at Mr. Hodgson’s house from eight to nine o’clock the previous evening. I saw Peter Blanchard there. He came into the kitchen to light his cigar. I left about 9 o’clock and when going out I could hear Blanchard and the deceased talking very loud. I thought I heard Blanchard say ” I will.” and the deceased burst out crying. I am a friend of the deceased’s brother and I had offered to keep company with her. I believe Blanchard was jealous of me and he had threatened to give me a good thrashing as he was going to chapel on Sunday night.”

The Spring Assizes at Lincoln was only a few days after the murder. The case was presented, but adjourned until the summer, to give more time for evidence to be gathered. The Summer Assizes opened at the end of July 1875 and, as usual, the jury was made up of men of ‘reputation and good standing.’

Trial

It might be thought that when Peter Blanchard came to take the stand, proceedings would have been relatively brief, given that there was little doubt that he had killed Louisa Hodgson. His defence team, however, lead by Mr Samuel Danks Waddy, knew that their only hope of saving Peter Blanchard from execution was to convince the jury that he was insane at the time of the murder, and so there was a long debate about the prisoner’s mental health. The jury eventually retired and returned with a verdict of ‘guilty’, but with a recommendation that Blanchard should be spared the hangman’s noose. Before the judge gave his verdict, Peter Blanchard was allowed to speak:

“My Lord and Gentlemen, – I have a few words to say. I did not not know what I was doing, or else I could not have done it. I loved her so much, and never believed it was true that I had killed her till I got one of her funeral cards, for I had never anything against her. I would take my place in hell if her dear soul might go to heaven, for I would at any time sooner suffer myself, than see her suffer. I should be thankful if you would give my parents my body to take to Louth, in order that I may laid by the side of my dear Louisa. I wish to give one word of advice to you. my dear young friends, both men and women. You have come here to see me. and hear sentence passed upon me. Keep out of bad company. That was my ruin. My first failing was that I was soon persuaded to smoke ; from that I got to drinking and then to gambling, and then to neglect to go to a place of worship. Then I lost my senses at times, and then the fits came on. Let this be warning to you all. Look to Jesus, or some of you may be standing where I am next year. And if parents would look after their own families they would find plenty of work, without looking after others. After naming a man who. he said, had caused him many restless nights, the prisoner continued : I pray to God that this may be a warning to you all, and I hope my Heavenly Father will permit me to meet you all in heaven, to part no more. I shall soon be in heaven, and I am sure to meet my dear Louisa there. Young and old. come to Jesus, for he will help you in the time of trouble. Good bye to you all.”

Mr Justice Lindley was not empowered, to be merciful, however, and was only able to put Peter Blanchard’s fate in the hands of the Home Secretary:

Verdict

Screen Shot 2021-03-22 at 19.36.24Sadly for Peter Blanchard and his family, the Home Secretary, Richard Blanchard Cross (left), was not inclined to be merciful, and Peter Blanchard was executed on Monday 9th August 1875. This newspaper report tells the melancholy story:
“Peter Blanchard, a tanner, of Louth, Lincolnshire, was executed yesterday morning at Lincoln Castle for the murder of Louisa Hodgson at Louth in March last. The prisoner was examined by Dr. Briscoe on Friday, by order of the Home Secretary, with the view of ascertaining whether the jury’s recommendation to mercy, on the ground of his mind having been weakened by fits, could be acted upon. The result, however, was unfavourable to the prisoner, and the law was allowed to take its course. The crime for which Blanchard was executed was committed in a fit of jealousy arising out of a love affair. The young woman whom he was courting disregarded his attentions, nor was he looked upon favourably as a suitor by her parents. On Sunday evening, the 7th of March, she was accompanied to church by a young man, and on returning home they were met by Blanchard, who walked the remaining distance with her. When he took his departure she went to the door with him, and he suddenly drew out a knife and stabbed her to the heart, death being instantaneous. He then left and called on a neighbour, to whom he said, “I have done it.” Since his conviction Blanchard has slept well, and has been most attentive to the ministrations of the clergyman daily. On Saturday he had a final interview with his father and mother, his four brothers, and a friend. He acknowledged the justice of his punishment, and stated he had no wish to live. He averred that he did not know at the moment what he was doing when he committed the deed. Yesterday morning he was quite resigned to his fate, and walked unsupported to the gallows. He shook hands with the gaol chaplain and officials, and the last words he was heard to utter were, “Good-bye, my dear fellows; I am quite re- signed, and hope to meet you all in heaven.” He slept well on Sunday night, rose at six yesterday morning, breakfasted at seven, and wrote a short letter to his parents and brothers. He died almost without a struggle. Mr Marwood was the executioner.”

DEATH COMES TO NEWMARKET . . . A savage murder in Victorian Louth (2)

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PART TWO

SO FAR – On the evening of Sunday 7th March, 1875, 22 year-old Louisa Hodgson is stabbed to death by a man – Peter Blanchard – who had been courting her for four years. She dies almost instantly after Blanchard’s knife pierced her heart. The pair had been together in the sitting room of Louisa’s family home at 29 Newmarket (below) Blanchard has fled the scene.

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William Turner, a dealer in poultry, lived with his wife Emma in their small house in Vickers Lane. It was 10.30pm, Emma Turner had gone to bed, and William had locked the house up and was preparing to join his wife, when he heard someone trying the front door. He went to investigate, and found Peter Blanchard. Blanchard was clearly in a state about something, and asked if could come in. Turner’s evidence continued as follows:

“He asked if I would give him some whisky. I said my wife had gone to bed, but I would call her down and see if we had such a thing in the house. She came down and said we had not She gave him glass of brandy instead. He said, “I have done It”. I told my wife to take the bottle away and give him no more.

I said, “Done what Peter ?” At first he made no reply, but on my again asking him, he said, “I have stabbed the missus.” These were his exact words. I said, “What with ?” and he replied, “With a butcher’s knife. If I had not done it with a butcher’s knife I should have done it with this, putting his hand into his pocket and pulling out a razor. He put it back into his pocket. He first opened and shut it again. He was very excited and irritable. I could not say he was drunk. He had the use of his limbs as well as I have mine now.

My wife prevailed upon him to take the razor from his pocket and give to me. I told my wife to call my son to fetch Peter’s father and mother, and also to go to Mr. Hodgson’s and inquire what it meant. On my son’s return he said “She is dead.”

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The Hodgsons had already sent for the police, and Sergeant Wilkinson and Superintendent Roberts were at the scene when 16 year-old Thomas Turner arrived. He immediately informed the officers that Peter Blanchard was at the house in Vickers Lane. When Wilkinson and Roberts arrived, there was a scene of complete confusion. There were several members of the Blanchard family in the house, as well as the Turners and their five other children. Superintendent Roberts then arrested Blanchard. This was his evidence:

“On my seizing the prisoner he said, “I’ll go”. I’ll go without the handcuffs”.
He then said, “Is she dead?
I said, “Yes she is, and you are charged with killing her, but keep yourself quiet”.
He was a in a very excited state. He answered me:
It’s a good job, and I’m glad.”
We then brought him to the police-station, where I told him he would be detained on a charge of wilful murder. To this be said ,
“Oh, I did it and I’ll die like a man for her.”

I told him that what he said would be taken down and given in evidence against him.  I  cautioned him and expressly warned him that whatever said would be taken down and produced against him. I did not put any questions to him. The exact words I used were these, when he was in the cell:
“When I told you that you would be charged with this serious offence, I did not know for a certainty the girl was dead. You will be charged with the wilful murder of Louisa Hodgson”’
He then said: “Is she dead?” and on my replying, “I have already told you so” he said:
“God bless her.”
He was undoubtedly under the influence of drink; but my impression was that be knew well what he was doing.”

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At the Magistrate’s Court the next morning, Monday 8th March, Dr Higgins gave his account of Louisa’s injuries:

“I am a registered medical practitioner, practising in Louth. I was sent for to see Louisa Hodgson at about a quarter past ten o’clock. I went at once and found her dead. I saw a wound on the chest but did not then make further examination. This morning I made a post mortem examination. The wound was situated about half an inch below the nipple of the left breast. It was an incised wound about one inch in extent. I traced the wound which had penetrated the chest wall between the fourth and and fifth ribs, passed through the interior margin of the upper lobe of the left lung, and entered the left auricle of the heart.

I found a considerable quantity of blood effused into the pericardial and pleural sacs. The wound was sufficient to cause death rapidly, almost instantaneously. The heart would only beat a few seconds after it was inflicted.

I believe the knife produced would produce a similar wound to one described. It might have penetrated four inches.”

Blanchard had thrown away the murder weapon (a butchers’ knife) but it had been recovered in Aswell Street. He had taken the knife from his landlady’s kitchen. The magistrates committed Blanchard to be tried for murder at the next Assizes in Lincoln.

Louisa Hodgson was laid to rest in Louth Cemetery on Wednesday 10th March.

Funeral

In PART THREE – trial and execution

DEATH COMES TO NEWMARKET . . . A savage murder in Victorian Louth (1)

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PART ONE

It is March 1875. Mr Disraeli is the Prime Minister, and in Louth, local architect James Fowler is Lord Mayor. At No. 29 Newmarket lives agricultural blacksmith John Hodgson, his wife Jane and their large family. Elder son Charles has moved out but there are still seven other young Hodgsons at home, the oldest being Louisa, aged 22.

For the last four years, Louisa has been courted by a young man called Peter Blanchard, aged 25, the elder of another large family who live at 29 Charles Street. Peter’s father, Peter senior, with whom he works was described as a fellmonger, an old word for someone who deals in animal skins. Peter the younger had moved out of the family home and was living in town with a woman called Mrs Baker who kept a lodging house on Eastgate.

Photograph of Free Methodist Church, Eastgate, Louth, Lincolnshire [c.1930s-1980s] by John Piper 1903-1992


The Hodgson family were devout churchgoers, and their chosen place of worship was the imposing Free Methodist church on Eastgate (above). This had been built in the 1850s after the so-called ‘Free’ Methodists split from the mainstream Wesleyan church. On the evening of Sunday 7th March, the Hodgson family attended the evening service in Eastgate. Peter Blanchard was standing across the way from the church, outside Mrs Baker’s house, and he came over to talk to Louisa but did not join them when they went into the church. At about 7.45 pm, the family left the church, to find Blanchard waiting for them. Mr and Mrs Hodgson went to visit friends in the town but Louisa, Blanchard and the two younger Hodgson girls – Alice and Harriet – walked up the hill to Newmarket.

Mr and Mrs Hodgson returned home at 9.15, along with another young man called John George Campion, a farmer who lived on Brackenborough Road. Louisa and Blanchard were  together in the sitting room, but the rest of the family were in the kitchen. Contemporary newspaper reports can do a much better job of describing what happened next that I can. These were the words of John Hodgson:

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In PART TWO – an arrest and a funeral

THE RETURN OF HESTER LYNTON . . . Between the covers

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The publisher’s website tells us:
“Tony Evans has been a full-time writer since 2008. He has written several novels of historical mystery, Gothic fiction and suspense, including the popular Jonathan Harker mystery series and the Hester Lynton detective novels, as well as study guides and novel adaptations. Tony lives in the Yorkshire Dales with his wife, and enjoys walking and the outdoors.”

So, what do we have in this second volume of short stories, the follow up to The Early Hester Lynton Mysteries (2013) ? A female detective, obviously – and her companion Ivy Jessop – and the familiar backdrop of Victorian London and crimes carried out – for the most part – by the gentry, or sometimes by the impoverished middle classes. There are ten stories.

The Case of the Fanshaw Inheritance

HesterA rich widower, a self made industrialist, dies and leaves his fortune to be divided between his two nephews. One is a down-at-heel schoolmaster, the other a disreputable roué. The lucky man has to solve a cypher set by their late uncle. The good guy brings the  cypher to Hester and Ivy. They solve the conundrum with by way of a knowledge of 18th century first editions, a journey to explore an ancient English church, and  by breaking in to a family mausoleum.

The Case of the Stolen Leonardo

When a small, but obviously valuable painting by the great artist disappears from the Ronsard gallery, Hester’s cousin, Inspector Albert Brasher of the Metropolitan Police – who has been given the task of investigating the theft – is at his wits’ end, and turns to his relative for help. She solves the case, with the inadvertent help of an aristocratic dealer in stolen artwork.  The culprit – who is also a very clever forger – is found, but his motive for the crime triggers Hester’s compassion, and she arranges a very equitable solution to the case.

The Case of the Missing Professor

When Professor Ambrose Dixon goes missing, Hester is summoned to the Directorate of Military Intelligence. Dixon – a distinguished chemist – has been working for the War Office on a revolutionary new explosive, the formula for which – if it fell into the wrong hands – could destabilise the delicate military and political balance of Western Europe. Hester discovers the whereabouts of the professor, a dangerous impostor at the heart of the country’s intelligence service, and – perhaps – the code which can unlock  the formula to Dixon’s secret.

The Mystery of the Locked Room

The cases thus far have been relatively restrained affairs, but when Hester and Ivy are called in to investigate an apparent suicide in a genteel house just outside Maidstone, there is blood aplenty. We all know that suicides in crime novels are usually cleverly disguised murders, and this is no exception. Locked room mysteries usually involve mechanical ingenuity, and this case Hester is too clever for the would-be engineer, who also falls foul of Ivy’s skill with a pearl-handled revolver.

The Adventure of the Diamond Necklace

We are now in full melodrama mood, with swarthy “furriners” (in this case a particularly oily Italian), a criminal mastermind, young ladies being kidnapped by cosh wielding London low lifes, and the priceless piece of jewellery of the title. One of Hester’s many  talents is to effortlessiy forge handwriting after the briefest glimpse at an example of the original, and she uses this skill to hoodwink a prestigious private bank into revealing the contents of a safe deposit box.

The Case of the Kidnapped Schoolboy

When a nine year-old lad disappears from his bedroom in a genteel Putney villa, Hester and Ivy play two of the oldest detective games in the book – cherchez la femme and follow the money. With the help of a couple of burly railway policemen the villains are unmasked on the Dover platform of Charing Cross Station.

The Puzzle of the Whitby Housemaid

EvansHere, Tony Evans (right) indulges in the first of two shameless  – but entertaining – instances of name-dropping. Our two sleuths, weary after a succession of difficult investigations, are enjoying some well-earned R & R in the resort of Whitby. So who do they meet? Think Irish writer and man of the theatre, blood, fangs …..? Gotcha! They are engaged by a fellow holidaymaker, a certain Mr B. Stoker to investigate the disappearance of a housemaid. She has been induced to leave her present employment to go and work for a rather dodgy doctor. Much skullduggery ensues, the housemaid is saved, and Mr Stoker says, “Hmm – this gives me an idea for a story.”

The Case of the Russian Icon

Not so much blood and gore in this tale but more a case of a victimless crime. A widow is duped into selling what turns out to be a valuable religious artifact for a pittance, only to find it on sale in a smart London gallery for many times more than the unscrupulous dealer paid for it. No crime has been committed, but Hester Lynton takes it upon herself to exact some natural justice, and she does so by employing the craftsmanship of the forger who we met in The Case of the Stolen Leonardo.

The Case of the Naked Clergyman

My first image of this involved the legendary Parson’s Pleasure on the Oxford Cherwell, where naked vicars – and other chaps – were allowed to bathe, but this story is rather more sinister. An elderly  widower cleric has been behaving strangely, and his exploits have included dancing around in the buff, bathed in moonlight. Hester and Ivy soon discover that a hefty inheritance and an access to mind-altering pharmaceuticals are the cause of the problem.

The Problem of Oscar Wilde

Another hefty name-drop concludes this selection of tales, and the Irish man of letters turns up on Hester’s doorstep and asks for help. The problem is letters, and these are missives sent by Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills to someone he admires (a ‘gentleman’, of course). A sum of £200 is demanded for the return of the billets-doux. Hester and Ivy manage to derail this particular attempt to ‘out’ the great writer but, sadly, we all know his reprieve was to be only temporary.

This is a very agreeable and diverting read. Of course, we all know of another consulting detective in Victorian London, and one who also has a companion who writes up the cases, and often dashes about the Home Counties by train after consulting  Bradshaw’s Handbook. Additionally, this fellow (with his astonishing powers of observation) and his friend also had a housekeeper who usually showed clients up to their rooms – but no matter. Hester Lynton may be a Holmes pastiche in skirts, but as long as these books are well written, then I – and thousands of others, I hope – will continue to enjoy them. The Return of Hester Lynton is published by Lume Books and is out now.

CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 8 : Brighton and London

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It has been, as the song goes, a long and winding road. Nearly 1000 miles, or thereabouts of rolling English highway and  we are nearing the end. Just two more stops, and we will be back where we started, In London. Yes, there are places and authors we might have visited; Trevor Wood’s Newcastle, John Harvey’s Nottingham and Phil Rickman’s Hereford, to name just three. But both writer and reader can suffer fatigue, so this journey is what it is. Our penultimate stop-over is Brighton, seemingly a place of bizarre contrasts. There is the elegant watering place beloved of the Prince Regent, and the cheeky seaside town beloved of London day trippers, but with a scary undercurrent immortalised by Graham Greene. There is the contemporary Brighton, a place where outlandish political and social fads make its counterparts in California look reactionary. But our Brighton is a much sunnier place. We are in the 1960s, sex had just about been invented, mobile ‘phones were undreamt of in anyone’s philosophy, and a young man called Colin Crampton is the ace crime reporter for the Evening Chronicle.

Brighton

Colin Crampton is the inspired creation of former journalist Peter Bartram, and I do wonder if Colin is, perhaps, a younger version of Peter, and I would like to think so. Peter, from, my online dealings with him, is a genial and astute fellow with a broad sense of humour, and someone with a fund of nostalgic cultural references from days gone by.  In brief, Colin is as sharp as a tack, has a gorgeous Australian girlfriend called Shirley, vrooms around Brighton in his sports car, and his boss, deputy editor Frank Figgis, is permanently wreathed in a cloud of Woodbines smoke. The books are simply delightful. Escapist, maybe, comfort reading, probably, but superbly crafted and endlessly entertaining – yes, yes, yes. If you click the graphic below, a link will open where you can read reviews of the Crampton of The Chronicle series, and also features by Peter on the background to some of his stories.The author’s photograph contains a link to his own website.

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LONDON CALLING! And the voices are none other than those of Arthur Bryant and John May – and their creator, Christopher Fowler. Bryant & May are, of course, an in-joke from the very start. More elderly readers will remember the iconic brand of matches so familiar to those of us who grew up the middle and later years of the 20th century.

Fowler devised a brilliant concept. We have two coppers who began their investigative careers during Hitler’s war. One, Arthur Bryant, is an intellectual iconoclast, a fount of obscure knowledge, be it of Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Patagonia or the inner regions of the Hindu Kush. His expertise, however, is London. There is not a hidden river, an execution site, an ancient drovers’ trackway or site of an old graveyard that Arthur doesn’t have logged somewhere in his noggin. His colleague, John May, is slightly younger, but has adapted to the passing years. He wears decent suits, chooses conciliation rather than confrontation, and retains the razor sharp mind of his younger years. He is resolutely and remorselessly devoted to Arthur Bryant, and such is Fowler’s mastery of human chemistry that we know  one could never exist without the other.

Screen Shot 2021-11-21 at 18.34.16There were nineteen B & M novels, beginning with Full Dark House in 2003, plus a quartet of graphic novels and short story collections. I say ‘were’, because although Christopher Fowler (left) is still with us, those who have read London Bridge Is Falling Down (2021) will know – and I am sorry if this is a spoiler – that old age and infirmity finally catches up with the venerable pair of detectives. Where to start to talk about this series? The author himself is, as far as I can judge, a modern and cosmopolitan fellow, but his love – and knowledge – of London is all embracing. Christopher Fowler is a one-off in contemporary writing, and completely individual, but speaking as an elderly chap with many years of reading behind me, I can best put him in context with great English writers of the last 150 years or so by looking at various aspects of the novels.

There is humour in the books, plenty of it and – as you might guess – it’s very English. Imagine a chain of writers which goes back to Victorian times, starting perhaps with Israel Zangwill and the Grossmith brothers. The torch is carried onwards by Wodehouse, JV Morton and – with a more abrasive edge – by Waugh. Tom Sharpe is largely forgotten now, but his anarchic view of English customs and behaviour fits in well.

Now the city of London itself. Imagine a writer with the nostalgic fondness of Betjeman, blended with the darker imagination of writers like Ackroyd and Sinclair, and you will find that Christopher Fowler fits the bill perfectly. He makes us aware that the streets of his home town are like a stage, with troupes of actors down the ages acting out their dramas, each set of footsteps eventually fading to give way to the next, but each leaving something indelible behind, eternally available for those with ears to listen

Let’s not forget, though, that this is crime fiction, and the B&M stories have a strong vein of the Golden Age running through them, particularly with the ‘impossible’ crimes. Not content with mere locked rooms, Fowler takes us into a world where pubs vanish of the face off the earth and an 18th century highwayman commits murder in an art gallery. We started our journey in Derek Raymond’s London, with its drab streets, mean hearts, cruelty and violence. The streets walked by Bryant and May certainly have their dark corners, but Christopher Fowler fills them with joyful quirks of history, ghosts (mainly benevolent) and a sense of gleeful iconoclasm.

For reviews and features about the Bryant and May novels,
click the  image below.

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CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 7: Exmouth and Isle of Wight

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There is a synopsis of teach of the four Jimmy Suttle novels below.
Click the cover to go to a full review of the book

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Opinions are like, well, I’m sure you know the old and rather vulgar adage about everyone having one, but in my view, if you know of any contemporary writer who wrote four better books, each hypnotically linked together over four years then, to quote one of my favourite poets, You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din” Other genders are available on written application.

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Along the coast we go now, but not far from Jimmy Suttle’s former stamping ground. We are headed for the Isle of Wight, and a visit to an author who is one of the cleverest fellows on the literary scene. Meiron (MJ) Trow and I share one or two chapters should anyone write our biographies. We both attended Warwick School – he a couple of years down from me, and I don’t think we were ever aware of each other. Secondly, we both went on to become teachers – he of history, and  I of Music. One of the lovely ironies here is that his wonderful autobiographical character Peter ‘Mad Max’ Maxwell, a much loved but rather anarchic history teacher at an Isle of Wight secondary school, is always at odds with the idiocy and politically correct incompetence of his senior management team. Me, I actually became part of senior management towards the end of my career but, unlike the muppets in Meiron’s school, I hope I retained my sense of the absurd.

Screen Shot 2021-11-17 at 19.36.38MJ is alive and well, and still writing, and Peter Maxwell appeared as recently as 2020 with Maxwell’s Summer. The series started in 1994 with Maxwell’s House, a title which (if you were around in the 1960s) will give you some idea of MJ’s wonderful sense of English domestic history – and his inability to resist a pun. The books are highly enjoyable, but never cosy. There is a streak of melancholy never far from the surface, and we are reminded that Maxwell’s first wife died when the car they were in was involved in a fatal collision. Max has never driven since, and his trusty bicycle is a regular prop in the stories. Max eventually marries his policewoman girlfriend Jackie Carpenter, which is only right and fair, since she is the plot device that has given him a very convenient ‘in’ with local murder investigations. MJ Trow has several other CriFi series to his name, and I list them below.

Screen Shot 2021-11-17 at 19.38.50Screen Shot 2021-11-17 at 19.38.17Inspector Lestrade – in which Trow ‘rehabilitates’ the much maligned copper in the Sherlock Holmes stories. 17 novels, beginning in 1985.
Kit Marlowe – in which Trow has the poet and playwright turning detective. 10 novels, beginning in 2011.
Grand & Bachelor – a former American Civil War soldier and an English journalist start a detective agency in Victorian London. 7 novels starting in 2015.
Margaret Murray – is an archaeologist turned amateur detective. Set in late Victorian London, the first book, Four Thousand Days, has just been published.

Trow has also written many non fiction books, featuring true crimes such as Jack the Ripper, and the Craig and Bentley case, To read more on Fully Booked, click the author’s image below.

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THE DUBLIN RAILWAY MURDER . . . Between the covers

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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.


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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.

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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.

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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

CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND . . . 3: Scunthorpe and Leeds

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Screen Shot 2021-10-30 at 18.48.53A trip to Scunthorpe might not be too high on many people’s list of literary pilgrimages, but we are calling in for a very good reason, and that is because it was the probable setting for one of the great crime novels, which was turned into a film which regularly appears in the charts of “Best Film Ever”. I am talking about Jack’s Return Home, better known as Get Carter. Hang on, hang on – that was in Newcastle wasn’t it? Yes, the film was, but director Mike Hodges recognised that Newcastle had a more gritty allure in the public’s imagination than the north Lincolnshire steel town, which has long been the butt of gags in the stage routine of stand-up comedians.

Author Ted Lewis (right) was actually born in Manchester in 1940, but after the war his parents moved to Barton-on-Humber, just fourteen miles from Scunthorpe. Lewis crossed Screen Shot 2021-10-30 at 18.54.40the river to attend Art college in Hull before moving to London to work as an animator. His novels brought him great success but little happiness, and after his marriage broke up, he moved back to Lincolnshire to live with his mother. By then he was a complete alcoholic and he died of related causes in 1982. His final novel GBH (1980) – which many critics believe to be his finest – is played out in the bleak out-of-season Lincolnshire coastal seaside resorts which Lewis would have known in the sunnier days of his childhood. In case you were wondering about how Jack’s Return Home is viewed in the book world, you can pick up a first edition if you have a spare £900 or so in your back pocket.

There is a rather arcane conversation to be had about the original name Jack’s Return Home. Yes, Carter’s name is Jack, and he returns to his home town to investigate the death of his brother. But take a look at a scene in the film. Carter visits his late brother’s house, and amid the books and LPs strewn about, there is a very visible copy of a Tony Hancock record, Check out the discography of Tony Hancock LPs, and you will find a recording of The East Cheam Drama Festival and one of the plays – a brilliantly spoof of a Victorian melodrama – is called …….. Jack’s Return Home.

You can find out much more about Ted Lewis and his books by clicking the image below.

ECD together

Before we leave the delights of ‘Scunny’, here’s a pub quiz question. Three England captains played for which Lincolshire football team? The answer, of course, is Scunthorpe United. The three captains?
Kevin Keegan – Scunthorpe 1966-71, England captain 1976-82
Ray Clemence – Scunthorpe 1965-67, England captain once, in a friendly against Brazil
Ian Botham – Scunthorpe 1980-85, England (cricket) captain 1980-81

Ouch! Anyway, back to crime fiction and we start up the Bentley and head into darkest Yorkshire to meet a policeman and his family in the city of Leeds.

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Screen Shot 2021-10-25 at 19.01.43Does Chris Nickson preach? Absolutely not. This is the beauty of the Tom Harper books. No matter what the circumstances, we trust Harper’s judgment, and we can only be grateful that the struggles and sacrifices that he and his wife endured paid – eventually – dividends. The books are relatively short, but always vibrant with local historical detail, and I swear that I my eyes itch with the tang of effluent from the tanneries, and the sulphurous smoke from the foundries. We also meet real people like Herbert Asquith, Jennie Baines and Frank Kitson. Chris Nickson takes them from the dry pages of the history books and allows our imagination to bring them to life. For detailed reviews of some of the Tom Harper books, click the author’s image (left)

A CORRUPTION OF BLOOD . . . Between the covers

 

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Simpson_James_Young_signature_pictureAmbrose Parry is the pseudonym used by husband and wife writing team Dr Marisa Haetzman and Chris Brookmyre. As a pseudonym goes, it is a pretty good one, especially for historical novels, as it has a rather convincing resonance to it. Writing partnerships are more common than you might think, and in some cases it remains a mystery as to who contributes what. Not so, possibly, in this case, as Dr Haetzman was a consultant anaesthetist at Wishaw General Hospital in Scotland, and the central characters in this novel are a young doctor in early Victorian Edinburgh – Will Raven – and his mentor, the real life James Young Simpson (left), a pioneer in the use of anaesthesia (chloroform in the early days) in surgical procedures.

This is the third novel in the series so, as ever, there is a back-story, part of which you can find in my review of the previous book The Art of Dying. Raven’s love interest in that book is a young woman called Sarah who was a domestic servant in the Simpson household. She had a brief flirtation with Raven, but then married another Edinburgh doctor. He died, but left Sarah a considerable fortune, which is helping her pursue her ambition to become a doctor. When this book begins, she has left Edinburgh on her version of The Grand Tour, during which she hopes to meet the first woman to be officially recognised as a professional physician, the American Dr Blackwell.

Screen Shot 2021-09-02 at 18.26.27Meanwhile, Raven has met – and fallen in love with – Eugenie Todd, the beautiful and intelligent daughter of another Edinburgh doctor, and has also become involved in a murder mystery. Sir Ainsley Douglas, a powerful and influential man of means has been found dead, and the post mortem reveals traces of arsenic in his stomach. His wastrel son Gideon is arrested on suspicion of poisoning his father, with whom he has had a fairly unpleasant falling-out. Raven is an old acquaintance – but far from a friend – of Gideon. The two knew each other from university and Raven has a very low opinion of his former fellow student, and is very surprised when he is summoned to Gideon’s prison cell and asked if he will investigate Sir Ainsley’s death.

Sarah returns from her trip to the continent, but she is chastened by her meeting with Dr Blackwell, who suggested that she simply did not have the depth of education required to become a physician. Uneasy and uncertain at the news of Raven’s new romantic venture, she distracts herself from this unwelcome news by investigating an illegal trade which involves the selling of unwanted babies.

As Raven attempts to piece together the events of the last evening of Sir Ainsley’s life, the arsenic poisoning looks increasingly unlikely since – if it had been administered by Gideon – a former medical student would know that the poison is easily traced in the body. Raven has more personal matters on his mind, too, as he suspects that Eugenie and her father are keeping something from him about the young woman’s past.

There are some grisly scenes in the novel involving both the living and the dead, but the story is suitably – and fiendishly – complex. Readers will have to wait until the very last few pages for all to be revealed and, for what it’s worth, I didn’t foresee how the plot eventually worked itself out. There are no prizes on offer for guessing which parts of the narrative are written by Dr Haetzman, but these authentic descriptions of surgical procedures and spotlights on the history of medicine blend seamlessly with the crime fiction plot to make for a riveting and convincing murder mystery. A Corruption of Blood is published by Canongate Books and is available now.

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