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House With No Doors . . . Between the covers

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HWND cover008This has the most seriously sinister beginning of any crime novel I have read in years. DI Henry Hobbes (of whom more presently) is summoned by his Sergeant to Bridlemere, a rambling Edwardian house in suburban London, where an elderly man has apparently committed suicide. Corpse – tick. Nearly empty bottle of vodka – tick. Sleeping pills on the nearby table – tick. Hobbes is not best pleased at his time being wasted, but the observant Meg Latimer has a couple of rabbits in her hat. One rabbit rolls up the dead man’s shirt to reveal some rather nasty knife cuts, and the other leads Hobbes on a tour round the house, where he discovers identical sets of women’s clothing, all laid out formally, and each with gashes in the midriff area, stained red. Sometimes the stains are actual blood, but others are as banal as paint and tomato sauce.

Hobbes makes a more thorough investigation of the strange house, and finds a cellar in which he discovers something even more disturbing. Author Jeff Noon introduced us to Hobbes in Slow Motion Ghosts (2019 – click for the review) and, like that earlier novel, this one is set in the 1980s. Hobbes is a bit of a misfit. He is certainly not ‘one of the lads’ back at the station. He is quiet, cerebral and single, his marriage to Glenda being certainly on the rocks and close to being sunk. As he tries to work out what secrets lie within the walls of Bridlemere, he has personal problems, the chief of which being the fact that his 17 year-old son has left home to live in a squat, where both his health and sanity are threatened.

Hobbes believes that although Leonard Graves did probably take his own life, an enigmatic note he left suggests that there is a body concealed somewhere in the house.. While an intensive search produces no human remains, what Hobbes calls The Case of The Thirteen Dresses becomes a genuine murder enquiry when the body of the old man’s son is found, battered to death in Richmond Park.

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The more Hobbes learns about the Graves family, the more he feels drawn into their sinister world. Mary Estelle, Leonard’s wife, a former actress of renown, is living out her days in an old folk’s home, absorbed in her glittering memories, but was she responsible for corrupting her three children Rosamund, Camilla and Nicholas? Was there a fourth child, Adeline, mentioned in Leonard’s suicide not? And what of the grandson, David, and his obsession with Kusozu, the macabre Japanese art form that depicts the very corruption of death?

Jeff NoonMy verdict on House With No Doors? In a nutshell, brilliant – a tour de force. Jeff Noon (right) has taken the humble police procedural, blended in a genuinely frightening psychological element, added a layer of human corruption and, finally, seasoned the dish with a piquant dash of insanity. On a purely narrative level, he also includes one of the most daring and astonishing final plot twists I have read in many a long year.

Jeff Noon takes us to places unvisited since the days of the late, great Derek Raymond. This novel is crime fiction, yes, but also a journey into the darkest corners of the human soul. Raymond’s nameless copper also walked the bleaker streets of London, and he had a passion verging on obsession for avenging the victims of crime by finding the people who killed them. Henry Hobbes shares this single mindedness. House With No Doors is a chronicle of madness wearing a mask of normality. It is deeply moving and as Hobbes mines deeper and deeper into history of the Graves family, he shows us that it is not only the dead who are victims. The book is published by Doubleday and is out on 14th January.

DOUBLE AGENT . . . In brief

DA 1Political journalist, TV news presenter – and novelist – Tom Bradby is as close to the centre of British international relations as it is possible to get without signing The Official Secrets Act. His first novel, Shadow Dancer, was published in 1998, and now his eighth book – Double Agent – which came out in hardback earlier this year, is available from 7th January in paperback.

The central character in this spy thriller is MI6 agent Kate Henderson, and fans of Bradby’s work will know her from Secret Service, which came out in 2019. Then, as now, the villains of the piece are the Russians – and those in the West who share the Russian ideology behind a mask which allows them to operate at the very centre of the British establishment.

51UTZczpwoL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_If this has an echo of the late and much-lamented David John Moore Cornwell, better known to us as John le Carré, then so be it. Bradby carries the torch for a younger generation of novelists who are intrigued by the complex relationship between the Russian soul and the British mind. In Double Agent, Kate Henderson becomes the reluctant keeper of a terrible secret – the British Prime Minister is working for the Kremlin.

How she handles this potentially deadly information makes for a riveting read for anyone who likes political thrillers. Double Agent is published by Corgi/Penguin, and is available here, and from all good bookshops. Fans of Kate Henderson will be pleased to know that a third book in this series – Triple Cross – will be out in May this year.

TO THE DARK . . . Between the covers

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Screen Shot 2021-01-03 at 21.02.58I am delighted to say that my first review for 2021 is a new book by the reliably excellent story-teller, Chris Nickson. For those new to his books, he is a widely travelled former music journalist, who has rubbed shoulders with some of the big names in rock, but now pursues a rather more sedentary lifestyle in the Yorkshire city of Leeds. When he is not tending his treasured allotment, he writes historical novels, based around crime-solvers across the  centuries, most of them based in Leeds.

You can click the link to check out his late 19th century novels featuring the Leeds copper Tom Harper, but his latest book takes us back a little further, to Georgian times. Leeds is undergoing a violent transformation from being a bustling, but still largely bucolic centre of the wool trade, to a smoky, clattering child of the Industrial Revolution.

There are fortunes to be made in Leeds, but crime is still crime, and Simon Westow is known as a thief-taker. Remember, this is before the emergence of a regular police force, and what law there is is enforced by (usually incompetent) town constables, and men like Westow who will recover stolen property – for a fee.

the-darkWestow is a man who has survived a brutal upbringing as an institutionalised orphan, and there is not a Leeds back alley, courtyard or row of shoddily-built cottages that he doesn’t know. He doesn’t work alone. He has an unusual ally. We know her only as Jane. Like Westow, this young woman has survived an abusive childhood, but unlike Westow – who isn’t afraid to use his fists, but is largely peaceable – Jane is a killer. She carries a razor sharp knife, and uses it completely without conscience if she is threatened by men who remind her of the degradation she suffered when younger.

When a petty criminal is found dead in a drift of frozen snow, Westow frets that he will be linked with the murder as, only a week or so earlier, he had completed a lucrative assignment that involved returning to their owner stolen goods that had come into the hands of the dead man. Instead of being harassed by the lazy and vindictive town constable, Westow is asked to try to solve the crime. It seems that two aristocratic officers from the town’s cavalry barracks might be involved with the killing, and this sets Westow a formidable challenge, as the soldiers are very much a law unto themselves. Meanwhile a notebook has been found which is connected to one of murdered criminal’s associates, but it reveals little, as it is mostly in code. Someone cracks the cipher for Westow, but he is little the wiser, especially when the text contains the enigmatic phrase ‘To The Dark.’

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The discovery of a stolen handwritten Book of Hours, potentially worth thousands of gold sovereigns, further complicates the issue for Westow, and when the seemingly invincible Jane suffers a crippling injury, his eyes and ears on the Leeds streets are severely diminished. Still, the significance of ‘To The Dark’ escapes him, and when his life and those of his wife and children are threatened he is forced to face the fact that this seemingly intractable mystery may be beyond his powers to solve.

As ever with Chris Nickson’s novels we smell the streets and ginnels of Leeds and breathe in its heady mixture of soot, sweat and violence. In one ear is the deafening and relentless collision of iron and steel in the factories, but in the other is the still, small voice of the countryside, just a short walk from the bustle of the town. Nickson is a saner version of The Ancient Mariner. He has a tale to tell, and he will not let go of your sleeve until it is told. To The Dark is published by Severn House and is out now.

THE MADNESS OF GEORGE TIMMS . . . Part Two

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With his father behind bars awaiting trial, the melancholy task of burying his mother fell fell to Henry Timms As the newspaper report suggests, there was a great deal of public interest in the poor soul’s demise.

“The funeral of the murdered women took place on Monday afternoon, when the remains were interred at Borough Cemetery. A large number of people gathered in the neighbourhood of Charles Street, and stood in groups near the house where the unfortunate women met her death. The body had been enclosed in an elm coffin with black mountings, and a brass plate bearing the following inscription. “Harriet Fanny Timms, born 10th May. 1835. Died 19th January. 1888″ A single wreath of flowers had been placed the coffin. The mourners were the deceased’s son. Henry, his wife and sister, and two other relatives, who were accompanied by two friends of the late Mrs Timms. The least frequented route was taken, but by the time the hearse and coach had arrived at the cemetery a considerable crowd had assembled in the vicinity of the grave. After a short service in the Church, the coffin was borne to the where the last offices were performed by the Rev Scarborough, Wesleyan Minister of Warwick. Directly the ceremony was over the, sexton proceeded to fill up the grave, and the crowd dispersed.”

With there being no doubt at all that George Timms had battered his wife to death with a fire brick, the police and prosecutors were left to ponder the exact state of the man’s mind. He was being held in Warwick Gaol on Cape Road (below), and the poignant scene when he was visited there by his son and daughter-in-law was described with a great sense of melodrama by the local papers, although how on earth they knew the details, I cannot imagine. It is hardly likely that reporters were present, but who knows?

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“In an interview with his son and daughter-in-law at Warwick Gaol on Thursday afternoon, Timms is described as having been prostrated in grief, and when questioned by his son as why he killed the deceased, he repeated his former declaration that he could give no explanation whatever. He paced up and down the cell, wringing his hands and said:

” Poor soul, do you think I’d knowingly have hurt a hair of her head?”

“When somewhat calmer he inquired whether his wife’s funeral was over. and also asked several questions relating domestic matters. During all this time he seemed comparatively cool and collected in his manner, but before the close of the interview he lapsed into the condition of melancholy and indifference which has occasionally characterised him since has been in prison.”

“When he had recovered himself, his son and daughter-in-law – the interview having terminated – shook hands with him, and wished him good-bye. He then cried bitterly again, and it was some time before he could be pacified. The prisoner, it is said, looks much thinner, and has a most careworn appearance.”

Timms appeared before Warwick Magistrates – the Mayor (Councillor S. W. Stanton), Major Mason, Mr Baly, and Mr James Baly – and was represented by Mr Boddington who, on the behalf of the prisoner, pleaded “not guilty”. The grim litany of events on that January night was put before the court, and in just under tow hours, George Timms was declared guilty of his wife’s murder, and the case transferred to the next Warwick Assizes.

HuddlestonThe March Assizes was presided over by a distinguished judge, Baron Huddleston, (left) and, unlikely though it may seem to us today, the names of the members of the jury were published in the newspapers, complete with names and addresses. Look at the bottom of the list, and you will see the name of a Mr G H Nelson. We will never know, but this could be one of the family who not only employed Timms for a number of years, but built the cottage in which he battered his wife to death. Judge Huddleston, incidentally, was in very poor health, and would die the following year at the age of 75. As his formidable appearance might suggest, Huddleston was was opinionated and unafraid to exert a strong influence on juries. He was reputed to wear colour-coded gloves to court: black for murder, lavender for breach of promise of marriage and white for more conventional cases. In this instance, however, he was quick to agree to the request by Timms’ defence team, that the case should stand over until the next Assizes so that a more detailed report into the prisoner’s mental health could be presented.

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When the next Assizes came around, at the end of July, sufficient medical evidence had been gathered to convince both judge and jury that George Timms was not of sound mind. He was, of course convicted of murder, but his sentence was that he should be detained as a criminal lunatic. In a headline that modern day tabloid papers would be proud of, the verdict was announced to the world.

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The nearest asylum to Warwick was, of course, the brooding mock-Tudor hulk of Warwick County Lunatic Asylum at Hatton, which opened in 1852. It was renamed Warwick County Mental Hospital in 1930, changed its name to Central Hospital in 1948, and finally closed in 1995. I have an personal interest, albeit, a rather gloomy one. My great grandfather, Richard Prestidge, died there in 1909 at the age of 48, of what was termed General Paralysis of The Insane. We now know it as terminal syphilis, so I suspect that my ancestor had been something of a bad lad in his youth. His youthful indiscretions had a fatal consequence, sadly, in those pre-antibiotic days. As for George Timms, it was later reported that he was a resident of Hatton, happily engaged with a new skill, that of a shoemaker.

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THE MADNESS OF GEORGE TIMMS . . . Part One

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Screen Shot 2021-01-01 at 21.36.11A lifetime ago, when I was a pupil (remember that word? These days they are ‘students’ or ‘learners’) at Warwick School, I remember a gentleman coming to speak to us in the assembly hall we knew as Big School. He was Mr Guy Nelson, and we knew nothing of him, but it transpires he was the current head of a family which had been a major industrial presence in Warwick for generations. The Nelsons had a variety of interests, including gelatine manufacture and meat shipping, but the time we were assembled to listen to him, the firm had been absorbed by bigger competitors.

What the Nelsons stood for, however, was rather special. They were enlightened employers who took a philanthropic view of the relationship between worker and master. They built houses and social clubs for their workforce and, for some time, the area around their factory in Emscote was known as Nelson’s Village. Central to this was Charles Street, and this is where we come to the True Crime aspect of this feature.

At a few minutes past one o’clock in the morning, on 19th January 1888, Police Constable Salt was stamping his feet and trying to keep warm as he stood on duty at the far end of Smith Street, Warwick. The silence of the night was broken by a man’s voice in the near distance, shouting and calling out.  Walking towards the disturbance, Salt shone his bulls-eye lantern into the dimly lit street, and he saw a figure come staggering towards him, lurching from one side of the road to the other, still shouting and moaning incomprehensibly.

With his free hand, Salt caught hold of the distressed man, and immediately noticed that his hands seem to be covered in blood. In a hoarse voice, the man cried out:

“I’ve murdered my wife; the Devil has tempted me to do it.”
“Where do you live?” asked Salt, but received no answer.
“Have you been home?” At this, the man replied,
“Yes – I’ve been to bed and got up again.”

A man called Henry Harris, who was the night-watchman at the nearby fire station, attracted by the fracas, joined the pair, and between them, he and PC Salt managed to march the man to the police station, which then stood at the top end of Northgate Street. manning the front desk was Police Constable Lewis. Salt informed Lewis what the man had told him, and Lewis asked for his name:

“My name is George Timms. I live at No. 1 Charles Street and, yes, I have murdered my wife. You will find her there. I have left the back door open.”

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From here, the pace of events quickened. The two constables, realising that this was something way above their pay grade, wasted little time in summoning the help of their senior officers. Dr. Guthrie Rankin of 23 Jury Street was called to the scene. What he found was later reported in the press as follows:

“On going into the bedroom he saw the woman lying on the bed, halfway across, and quite dead. Her face was lying in a pool blood. There was no evidence that any struggle had taken place. From a superficial examination, he found some wounds on the back of the scalp, from which the blood had evidently come. Death had only recently taken place. He made a post mortem examination some hours later. There were four scalp wounds, one of them very large, and the bone underlying the wounds was fractured in several places. Two the fractures penetrated to the brain. There was a large bruise over the back of the neck, and the back of the left shoulder was also discoloured. All these wounds were, undoubtedly, such as might be caused by blows from a brick.”

In Part Two of The Madness of George Timms
A FUNERAL
WARWICK ASSIZES
A NEW CAREER AS A SHOEMAKER

A LOUTH TRAGEDY . . . Part Three

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ON SATURDAY 23rd JULY, 1927, Bertram Horace Kirby was told in Louth Magistrates Court that he would be sent to the next Lincoln Assizes to be tried for the murder of his wife on Tuesday 11th July. Throughout the hearing, Kirby had spoken only once, to tell the court that he was handing everything over to his solicitor, and would have nothing more to say, other than admitting that Minnie Eleanor Kirby had died at his hands. Meanwhile, poor Minnie had been buried in her home town of Boston.

Cemetery_Church,_Boston“The funeral of Mrs. Minnie Eleanor Kirby, Louth, took place at Boston Cemetery on Friday afternoon last. The coffin was conveyed in motor hearse, there were one car and a motor-car for the mourners, who numbered six. The most pathetic figure was the deceased’s son, Mr. Harry Kirby, tall and fair haired, who appeared very distressed, particularly at the committal portion of the service. The remains were first of all taken into the little church, where a short service was conducted by the Rev. O. K. Wrigley, who also officiated at the graveside. The floral tributes were both numerous and beautiful. Included were the following: “Mother,” with fondest love from her boys, Harry, Ralph and Norman; To darling Minnie, from her sorrowing sister, Emilie; “Pax ; At rest ” darling sister Minnie with fondest love, from Edith; to dear Minnie from her sorrowing brother and sister, Charlie and Judy, Gillingham ; Auntie and Uncle; Phoebe: In affectionate remembrance from L. A. and M. Kirby ; with deepest sympathy from L. A. and A. C. Kirby; Kate; Mr. and Mrs. G. A. Brough and family; R. Watson; B. and W Took ; Miss Carter and Miss Teanby.

The events surrounding the killing of Minnie Kirby became clear following witness statements in front of Louth magistrates. On the morning of 11th of July, at 7.30 am, Mrs Kirby had taken delivery of some letters from the postman, and a little later, 8 year-old Norman had set off to school. At some point during the morning she had been sitting at the table writing a letter to her son Ralph, who had emigrated to Canada. Bertram Kirby had fetched an axe from the woodshed and struck one savage blow to the base of her neck, probably killing her instantly. Kirby had made some effort to clean up the blood around his wife’s head, but had made to attempt to move her body.

He then walked into Louth where he called at the home of Mrs Took, where his older son Harry was a lodger. He asked Mrs Took if young Norman could come for his dinner, as he himself had to go to Grimsby on business and his wife had travelled to London by a morning train. On the way to Mrs Took’s house, he had called in at The Brown Cow pub, at the junction of Church Street and Newmarket and asked the landlady, a Mrs White if he could leave a bag and a parcel with her. She testified that Kirby looked “pale and agitated in his manner”.

On several occasions during the 11th and 12th July, Kirby took various parcels of women’s clothing to a little second hand shop run by Mrs Ryley, at 8 Eastgate, and exchanged them for cash. On the evening of 11th July, Kirby went to the Wheatsheaf Inn and played dominoes for most of the evening. He then walked back to the bungalow and spent the night sleeping in the same house as the corpse of his wife. As we have already read, he was then arrested on the evening of 12th July.

Gordon_Hewart,_1st_Viscount_HewartWhen the case finally came to trial at Lincoln Assizes on 2nd November, it was a brief affair. Representing Kirby, Mr T.K. Fitzwalter Butler did his best to persuade the jury that Kirby was insane, reminding them that he had joined the army – The Leicestershire Regiment –  in 1914, but by early 1915 was in a mental facility at Netley Hospital, Hampshire, after attempting to commit suicide, and had subsequently been discharged as unfit for service. The Lincoln jury, however, were having none of it, and after retiring for just twenty five minutes to return a verdict of guilty. Mr Justice Swift (right) promptly donned the small square of silk known as The Black Cap and sentenced Kirby to death.

Kirby’s date with the hangman was originally scheduled for December, but a plea for a reprieve was lodged with the Home Secretary of the time, Sir William Joynson-Hicks, was not in a giving mood, and he dismissed the appeal. At 8.00 am on Wednesday 4th January, Kirby made the short walk from the condemned cell (apparently after eating the proverbial hearty breakfast) to the Lincoln Prison gallows, where Albert Pierrepoint tightened the noose under his ear and pulled the fatal lever.

This is a strange case, and a horrid one, as the killing took place yards away from where I spent many happy hours as a youngster. No-one ever established a plausible motive for the murder. Kirby was clearly in a dire mental state, but what did he hope to gain from his wife’s death? Between the killing and his arrest he claimed to have sold the bungalow, but there was no evidence of this. I have no idea what became of the bungalow – a fellow train-spotter, now old like me, remembers going to it as a dare to see if he could see the ghost. And what became of the boys? Ralph may have lived the rest of his life out in his adopted Canadian home, and there is a record of a Harry Kirby dying in Colchester in the 1960s, but of young Norman, not a trace. Minnie lies in Boston Cemetery, in a rather overgrown grave (below) which can be found with a bit of effort and help from the cemetery keeper.

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And Bertram? His grave is probably marked by one of these modest little headstones in the prison burial ground with the walls of Lincoln Castle.

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A LOUTH TRAGEDY . . . Part Two

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Heneage copyTHE STORY SO FAR … It is July 1927, and we are in the quiet market town of Louth in the Lincolnshire Wolds. King George V has his head on the stamps and coins, Stanley Baldwin is the Conservative Prime Minister, while in parliament, Sir Arthur Pelham Heneage (left) represents Louth. All is not quiet however in a wooden bungalow close to the level crossing on Stewton Lane. The body of Minnie Eleanor Kirby has been discovered lying on the floor of one of the rooms. She has been dead for some hours, and the cause of death is clearly a massive wound to the base of her skull.

Inspector Davies of Lincolnshire Constabulary, alerted by Mrs Kirby’s worried son Harry, has forced an entry into the bungalow and made the grisly discovery. A few feet away from the lifeless body of Minnie Kirby is a large axe, bloodstained, and which would later be identified by the pathologist as exactly fitting the fatal wound. Suspicion immediately falls on Minnie Kirby’s husband Bertram, and while the poor woman’s corpse is removed to the mortuary for further investigation, the police begin their search for him. It was not to be a long or difficult manhunt. The White Horse Inn was one of several pubs that Kirby was known to frequent, and on the evening of Tuesday 12th July, PC Morris and Inspector Davies found Kirby engrossed in a game of dominoes. After being informed that he was to be arrested, he is reported to have said:

“All right. I am going to be fair with you. I am not going to cause any trouble. My God, boy, you don’t know how things are! I hope you never will. You don’t know what I had to put up with.”

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Kirby “came quietly” and was taken to the police cells. He was initially remanded until the forthcoming Saturday, 16th July. He was brought before the magistrates, and was remanded again to allow the police to prepare a case to put to the public prosecutor. Needless to say, the atmosphere in the town was described as “electric” by one feverish reporter, who went on to write:

Toen hall“A big crowd assembled outside the Town Hall in an endeavour to catch a glimpse of the prisoner, but the proceedings took place at the Superintendent’s office at the County Police Station in another part of the town.

Here, in a small room, before Mr Mark Smith and Mr W. C Street, with only the Clerk (Mr H. E. Roberts), Supt. C. Skinner, Inspector Davies and members of the press, Kirby was brought in. He trembled violently, his eyes had a vacant stare and he had to be supported by two police officers.

The prisoner is of stout build, with greyish hair and he wore no collar, his shirt being open at the neck. He was represented by Mr R. H. Helmer, of the well-known Louth firm of solicitors, Allison and Helmer.”

Part of the dossier being prepared for the prosecutor was a number of letters Kirby had written, and which were found in the bungalow and in his possession when arrested. They suggested a man at the end of his tether, preparing to enter into some kind of a pact with his wife. One passage read:

“My wife is my greatest pride in life. . . We have realised our financial state affairs, and come to the conclusion that death is the only way out of them. Please bury darling Minnie and myself together. We have loved one another.”

He went on to write:

HEADLINE 5“I have fell across very hard times. My darling wife, who has been my greatest pal in life, has realised this fact as well. God bless her. No-one could wish for a better wife , mother or comforter than her. We have realised our financial state of affairs, and come to the conclusion that death is the only way out of the matter. I left the railway in order, as I thought, to better myself, and this failed. Eventually I found myself stranded with writs, etc, and we had nothing to eat at home.”

“I therefore volunteered to go away with the idea of obtaining work, but to no avail. After this, I walked from Louth to Boston. Here I say God bless my wife. God bless her. No man, whoever he was could possibly find a better wife than I have had. Anyhow, here is a point I wish the Coroner to take up, and when I say this I mean it to be published and not doctored, because it is absolutely the truth.”


He appeared to be passionately devoted to his youngest son, Norman:

“How pleased we are to hear you are little Norman. God bless him- how I love this little bairn – I am heartbroken. Will you ask my Auntie Julia- her name is under Mrs F Pocklington, “Eversleigh”, Carlton Road, Boston – to take during her lifetime my darling boy Norman. My Auntie Julia is the only relative he loves. He always wishes to see his Auntie Julia. Further, I wish to say my Auntie Julia and Uncle Fred have been my best friends throughout all my life – God bless them both. They have been the only faithful friends we have had through life. Please bury darling Minnie and myself together.. We have loved one another. Poor little Ralph out in Canada, and poor little Norman and Harry. Oh! he has been a good boy. God bless them all – Minnie, Harry, Ralph and Norman. God bless them all and Auntie Julia and Fred.”

This wish that Norman would be fostered by the Pocklingtons is rather odd, because they were both elderly. Indeed, Mrs Pocklington’s “lifetime” would not extend much beyond the murder, as she died two years later. It must have been immediately obvious to the town solicitor representing Kirby – and, later, to his defence barrister at Lincoln Assizes – that the only way Kirby would escape with his life from this tragedy was for his representatives to plead that he was insane.

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In Part Three
THE EVENTS OF 10th and 11th JULY REVEALED IN COURT
INSANE OR WICKED?
A DATE WITH ALBERT PIERREPOINT

A LOUTH TRAGEDY . . . Part One

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Back in the 1950s and 60s I was a regular visitor to Louth. Mother was a Louth girl, and my grandmother, although born in Yorkshire, had lived in the area since before The Great War, first in a cottage in the grounds of Tathwell Hall, where her father was Head Groom, and then in the town itself. I used to stay with her in Tennyson Road during school holidays, and blissful days they were. I had made several friends in Louth, and we did what most lads did in those innocent days – played football and cricket and went fishing. The most intense of all our passions was, however, trainspotting.

RunaboutEach summer, we used to buy what was called a Runabout Ticket. It cost twelve shillings and sixpence and was a small rectangle of stiff blue cardboard. On it was printed a stylized map of the railway network in the area. It meant we could travel on any train, between any of the stations, as often as we wanted, for a week. Crucially, it gave us access to the East Coast main line between Peterborough and Grantham, with its magnificent Gresley Pacifics and all manner of spectacular engines. At other times, however, we had to make do with the trains that ran through Louth on the Grimsby to Boston line, and one of our favourite places to trainspot was the level crossing on Stewton Lane. Between trains.we could muck about by the nearby stream where it ran through a little gully, which was known as Seven Trees Island. Happily undreamed of in those days was the fact that we were enjoying ourselves on the site of one of the most gruesome and tragic murder cases of the early twentieth century.

MINNIEIn 1927, just by the railway, there stood a small wooden bungalow, the home of Bertram Horace Kirby, 46, and his wife Minnie. They were not originally Louth people, both having come from Boston, where they had married – possibly in St Botolph’s – in 1905. They had three sons. The two oldest had left home. Harry, 21, lodged with Mrs Took in nearby Church Street, while Ralph, 17, had emigrated to Canada. There was a much later addition to the family. Leslie Norman Kirby was just 8 years old. Minnie Eleanor Kirby (right) was described as follows in subsequent press reports:

“Mrs. Kirby was tall, and of striking appearance. She was most friendly woman, and was liked very much by her neighbours. Her hobby was gardening. She had studied her subject, and she was an expert gardener, and passionately fond of her flowers. She was extremely well-read, and was a thoroughly cultured woman, clever in many ways, and musical. She was a keen churchwoman.

Mrs. Kirby was also an enthusiastic member of the Women’s Unionist Association, and canvassed in Louth at the last election. She had been educated in Boston at Miss Stothert’s High School, and for about 10 years she was head clerk at Mr. A. Simpson’s furniture store, in the Market-place. She was very well-known in Boston. At school, she was a very apt pupil, and we are informed that Miss Stothert “thought a lot of her.” During her schooldays the took part in “The Mandarin”, and other plays. She was extremely fond of rowing, and frequently enjoyed her favourite exercise on the Witham.”

KIRBYBertram Horace Kirby (left) was a year younger than his wife. He also had musical talent, and while they lived in Boston he had been church organist in the town, and the village of Frampton. He had applied himself to various trades while living in the Boston area, but had worked for almost ten years for the London and North Eastern Railway. By 1927, however, he had given this job up, and had attempted to strike out on his own as a commercial dealer.

In the early evening of Sunday 10th July , Harry Kirby called at his parents’ home, and took his mother for a stroll. Although he had moved out of the bungalow because he and his father “couldn’t get along” he had noticed nothing untoward in the atmosphere between his mother and father. He was later to admit that his father “was prone to violent tempers when he had taken drink.”

Despite all seeming well with his parents, Harry Kirby must have had a sixth sense that prompted him to visit the bungalow on Tuesday 12th July. He found the doors locked and the curtains drawn, and could make nobody hear. He walked into the town and asked for help from the police. He returned with Inspector Davies who must have also sensed something was wrong, and forced his way into the bungalow through a rear window. What he found confirmed Harry Kirby’s fears that a tragedy was about to unfold. Minnie Kirby was lying dead on the floor of the living room, on her stomach, with her head turned to one side. At the base of her skull was a savage wound which had almost separated her head from her body.

In Part Two
AN ARREST INTERRUPTS A GAME OF DOMINOES
ANGUISHED LETTERS

LONG BRIGHT RIVER . . . Between the covers

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A wintry Philadelphia is the setting for Liz Moore’s fourth novel. A female police officer, Michaela ‘Mickey’ Fitzpatrick, works the streets of Kensington, This district’s history owes much to its proximity to the Delaware River, and the fishing, milling and transport industries, but these have long since ceased, and the area is run down, dilapidated, and one of the centres of the city’s drug trade.

LBR coverThis is not a crime novel in the traditional sense, and it certainly isn’t a police procedural, despite Mickey’s profession. The plot partly involves the search for someone who is killing young women who have been forced into prostitution to feed their drug habit but, although this is resolved, it is eventually incidental to the main thrust of the novel.

Mickey comes from a dysfunctional family. Her mother is long dead, she is estranged from her father, and both she and her sister Kacey were brought up by a rather forbidding and humourless grandmother they call Gee. Micky’s career in the police force is unspectacular, but it pays the bills for her and her young son Thomas. As the blurb on the back of the book cleverly puts it,

Once inseparable, sisters Mickey and Kacey are on different paths, but they walk the same streets. Mickey on her police beat and Kacey in the shadows of the city’s darkest corners where the drug addicts and the sex workers preside.

As more women fall victim to the mystery killer, Mickey becomes ever more frantic that Kacey will be the next body wheeled on a gurney into the mortuary to await the investigation by the police pathologist. When she hears from an old friend of Kacey’s that the killer is thought to be a police officer, she confides in her immediate boss, Sergeant Ahearn. Not only is he sceptical, but he bounces the accusation back at Mickey, and she finds herself suspended and under investigation into allegations about her own conduct.

Screen Shot 2020-12-27 at 18.57.52Liz Moore (right) treats Mickey’s search for her sister on two levels: the first, and more obvious one, is a nightmare trip through the squats and shoot-up dens of Kensington in an attempt to find Kacey – a search, find and protect mission, if you will. On a more metaphorical level, the books becomes a journey through Mickey’s own past in the quest for a more elusive truth involving her family and her own identity.

As readers we have one or two tricks played on us by the author as she allows us – through Mickey’s narrative –  to make one or two assumptions, before turning those on their heads. Liz Moore’s style is interesting, particularly in the way she replays dialogue. This is a powerful and thought-provoking novel which, despite some measure of redemption, has a truly chilling final few lines.

Long Bright River came out as a Kindle and in hardback earlier this year, and this paperback edition will be published by Windmill Books on 31st December

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