on 31 March 2008
Look in any bookshop and you will see a shelf of "true crime" books. Sadly, many of them are sensationalist and badly written "scissors and paste" jobs by authors who have conducted little or no original research.
This book is different. Diane Janes has carried out extensive research into the primary sources, including original court records, contemporary newspaper reports, and police and home office files. She grounds her text in the evidence, and provides thorough footnotes to link her narrative to its sources. There are no made-up conversations or imaginative reconstructions masquerading as fact.
Yet this book is far from being a dry academic work. It is an absorbing read, and I found it almost impossible to put down.
Most books about the past deal either with broad social trends or with the lives of the political and social elite. Murder trials give an unusual opportunity to learn about the everyday lives of ordinary people. In this book, a short train journey taken by two businessmen, and the afternoon walk of an elderly couple are recreated in astonishing detail, as are the preceding and subsequent lives of the principal characters and those who met or saw them on their fateful journeys. Janes employs other sources, of a type generally used for family or local history, such as birth, marriage and death records, parish registers, property records and local newspapers, to reveal previously unconsidered information about the people involved, and build a fuller picture of events.
The book is carefully structured to allow the reader to follow the cases as they progressed while overlaying Janes' thoughtful analysis and then, based on her research, bringing out features of the cases that were not apparent to the contemporary audience. The author's analysis of the Morpeth trial is particularly good, and her comments on the strengths and (notably) weaknesses of the performances of the barristers involved are highly perceptive.
I believe that this is the author's first book of this type and I sincerely hope that she will go on to apply her skills to other historical crimes.
on 26 May 2008
Diane Janes has written an intriguing book - on several levels. It is not simply a well researched murder mystery, looking in great detail at investigations into two murders that took place at opposite ends of Edwardian England, it is also provides an illuminating insight into the social history of the period - from rail travel to work environments, from the business of mining in the northeast to class structure. Had Diane Janes been, judge, juror or coroner at these cases, the trial and inquests that that she describes would have been more effective and just - in her book she asks the questions that should have been asked and probes where others avoided going. An interesting and worthwhile read, I look forward to her next foray into investigative non-fiction.
on 28 August 2009
This is a very good book and a model for all those writing in detail about real life murders, especially where there is controversy about those responsible.
In the case of the 1908 murder, no one was ever charged with shooting Mrs Luard, and in 1910, although John Dickman was hanged for the murder of Nisbet, there are some who question whether he was guilty.
The author here provides a detailed account of both killings, sometimes thought to be connected, and the evidence used is most impressive indeed.
Unlike most of those writing about the 1888 murders, she does not indulge in wild theories, and that is very welcome.
My interest in this is as a crime historian and someone who recently wrote about the 1910 murder. I wish I had known about her book earlier.
on 9 June 2013
With a lifelong interest in society, anthropology and puzzles I've read pretty much everything there is on historical murders and one gets so used to the author pushing their pet theory, glossing over inconvenient details and not following up obvious leads, or simply cutting and pasting from other people's work with nothing new to add. Trying to pick the truth out of the book is usually as much a matter of detective as if if one were trawling through the archives for oneself, and I've done that too.
So what a fantastic relief and, if one may use the word in this context, joy, to pick up Ms Janes' meticulously researched, and eloquently presented treatise. She does not take sides, speaking for and against all parties as the evidence flows, examines the failings of the investigations in a realistic but non-judgmental way, asks all the right questions of all the right people, and produces her conclusions with clarity and humility.
Were it up to me this would be a set book on any journalism or investigative course, and I look forward to more work of this standard in the future.
on 9 December 2012
This is essential reading for anyone with an interest in classic true crime. The research is detailed, the analysis meticulous, and the conclusions compelling. The author has provided vital information about the scenes of the crimes, which add considerable clarification. Most importantly she has finally laid to rest the allegations that the Dickman and the Luard cases were connected.