36 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on 29 July 2000
Unnatural Murder captures the essence of the 1600's with such fascinating detail that I can't put it down! I'm about 3/4 of the way through at the moment and I'm amazed at the information I'm learning about the history of the period - a topic that I am familiar with anyway.
History books can sometimes be a collection of well researched facts and little else. They can be dry to read and easy to forget. Anne Somerset has included so much everyday detail in with the facts of this murder enquiry that I feel as if I'm there in the court room with them all.
The book has given me so much more insight into our past as a Nation. It's not quite 400 years ago, which seems a long time in one way, but hardly anytime at all when you read the case. The medical knowledge of the time was extremely limited, the treatments barbaric, yet the practicing of law, although very different then from now, has recognisable threads that will come forward into our own times. We always think that our time is the most advanced. We think we work harder than ever before and longer hours with greater inventions. Yet reading about Lord Coke, the Lord Chief Justice, made me realise that striving to be the best in your choosen career and being ruthless along the way is not a recent thing.
For information about the court life of King James 1 of England, for everyday details, the way courtiers sought to better themselves at the expense of the King, this book is a valuable source. For realising that greed, power and unauthorised spending are not a sign of our times the details contained in the pages are facinating. For detective process and law and order, this book is an eye opener which closes the gap of the years between us. For medical treatment detail, it turns your stomach and for the shear wonder of the letters, so many and preserved so long, that give us the perfect picture of life in the court, this book is a delight to read.
If you are interested in history, you will almost certainly enjoy this thoroughly good detective case.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 29 July 2008
I am fascinated by history and especially historical kings and queens. However, I had never delved very much into James Ist and his court so this book really caught my eye. I was not disappointed by Anne Somerset's work. Initially she lays down a very good foundation with great descriptions and insights into all the characters involved in the affair of Thomas Overbury's death and the subsequent trials that followed. Each character becomes so alive and one really feels that you are living alongside them at court, in London, and in the Tower. I would recommend Anne's book to anyone who, like me, enjoys a good historical read, whether fiction or non-fiction as she forgets no detail whatsoever but provides a feast where her characters are concerned. I hope to read her book on William IV next as this is one of the Kings that I do not know too well. I am sure I will feel very close to him and his court though once I get my teeth into her meaty meal.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 15 January 2010
I'm an academic historian by training but full marks to Anne Somerset for a cracking read on a now obscure scandal that riveted Jacobean England: the trial of King James I's fallen favourite, Sir Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, and his wife, Frances Howard, for the murder by poison of Carr's former friend Sir Robert Overbury in the Tower of London.
Somerset has done her research well and, if she tends to wander off on learned digressions that are not really needed or occasionally shows her learning to no great effect, that is compensated for by her acute eye for how things really were. She has looked in depth at the sources and pieces together the story in extraordinary detail.
It isn't really a mystery story. Frances pleaded guilty and was patently guilty, as were most of those who hanged for it. The only open questions are whether Somerset himself took a hand in it and whether it was actually the poisons that got Overbury or the ghastly ordeal he suffered at the hands of 17th century doctors.
Perversely, Somerset may have been innocent but was convicted because the mind of the day said that a woman could not have hatched the plot alone. Frances, who probably never had sex in her entire life with anyone but him (the annulment of her first marriage, which was never consummated, is also described in excellent detail), was traduced more for her immorality than her participation in a murder. And, needless to add, the 'little birds' hanged while the couple behind it were pardoned, though their disgrace was complete and perpetual.
What emerges clearest is the staggering venality and corruption of the court, where men who sought office raised thousands to bribe noblemen to have a word. James I himself comes across as a ridiculous but essentially good-hearted man, who was genuinely appalled that his former favourite (and possibly homosexual lover) might have stooped to kill a man he personally disliked. It's not an easy read but it's a rewarding one.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 23 July 2007
This is a totally gripping book, bringing to life an intriguing period in English history and combining that detail with a thriller-like narrative. I'd never heard of the Overbury murder before, nor had I heard of the historian Anne Somerset... I'm glad to have remedied both situations. I certainly hope to read more of Ms Somerset's work.
on 27 March 2015
A compelling real-life tragedy delivered by the skilful hand of a woman who knows how to resurrect the distant past in a fashion that thoroughly captivates and enlightens her contemporaries, particularly those who are not content with the fabricated crimes that are the product of others' imaginations. Here is a true crime in all its hideous detail (for she spares you nothing, shrinks from nothing if it serves a purpose) and it is so meticulously researched and exhaustive in its detail that it seems the whole dastardly affair and those responsible for it are being purposefully recalled to face you, the reader, as a modern jury.
The sad young victim of this story is a smart young Englishman, Thomas Overbury, who incurs the wrath and enmity of several important courtiers and the king himself because he has become too vociferous in his opposition to a controversial proposed marriage between his best friend, Robert Carr, and Frances Howard, former wife of the Earl of Essex (their marriage having been controversially annulled on grounds of impotence, vehemently denied, naturally, by Essex). Overbury befriended Carr when he was in holiday in Scotland and Carr (who is the king's new toyboy when he inherits the English throne -- James having just pensioned off the wee blond's predecessor because he had dared to expose himself as a man by growing a beard) comes to use Overbury's services in a professional and advisory capacity, effectively making him his P.A., when he is given an important office of state which he is ill equipped to hold. Overbury sees the prospective marriage as a threat to Carr's prospects at court and ends up exasperating and ultimately alienating Carr with his relentless animosity towards his future wife and the assaults on her character. It seems likely that Overbury is not purely motivated by concern for Carr's best interests: the indications are that, like the King, Frances Howard, and the Earl of Northampton, he is well and truly smitten by the gold-digging young pretty boy and his antipathy to Frances Howard was as much rooted in jealousy as anything else. At any rate, she turns out to be a deadly enemy and along with Northampton, and probably the loathsome King James, and possibly Carr himself, they conspire to have the poor lad consigned to the Tower where he is done to death by slow and agonising poisoning.
Because of the multitude of characters involved in the crime and the complex process in bringing the culprits to justice, the court case is quite a long and drawn out affair which does necessitate the narrative being a bit longer than one might prefer. Nevertheless, even if this this issue could have been resolved with better editing, it must be said that the fault is not sufficient in itself to spoil the overall enjoyment of the book. It is a worthy read and much more satisfying than just another pointless piece of crime fiction.
Anne Somerset does a good job of re-telling the wonderfully scandalous tale of beautiful Frances Howard and her eventful life. Marriage, impotency, adultery, passion and poisoning ensue, complete with two trials, and a spell in the Tower.
The narrative is detailed and gripping though there are points at which Somerset can't help but get distracted by her own research and goes off on tangents. This would have been helped by the insertion of footnotes, though I know popular historians tend to avoid them. There are also some niggles around referencing where quotations aren't always sourced, and are too frequently attributed to `one person'.
The book would have benefitted from a family tree: two of the key families involved are the Howards and the Devereux-Sidney-Herbert family group. The Howard relationships are spelt out in the text though it would be handy to relate our key characters to their Tudor relations.
The Devereux (Essex), Sidney (Lisle), and Herbert (Pembroke, Montgomery) relationships are never discussed, which is rather odd given that Somerset does touch on the factionalism activated during the later part of the story. The fact that these lords are all inter-related through marriage is therefore, I think, quite important: Pembroke is step-cousin to Essex; Lisle, described as a hostile juror at the Somerset trial, is Pembroke's uncle and Essex's step-uncle; Lisle's (Robert Sidney) daughter, Mary Wroth, was Pembroke's cousin, mistress and mother to his two illegitimate children - she also wrote a version of the Somerset-Essex story in her romance Urania, and corresponded with George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.
But small niggles aside, this is a fascinating story, well-told, as vivid and compelling as any thriller.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 22 November 2008
A beautifully written book that compels you to feel sympathy to the two favourites of James the first bound up in the centre of this scandel. Somerset brings to life the climate of the time, so much so, that this is better than any novel, in fact, I found a review about her book on poisoning in Louis XIV court on an american site that called it historical fiction. Neither are fiction and both are fabulous reads.
on 23 February 2013
I've found "Unnatural murder" very interesting and mesmerlizing.
It is probably true that there isn't any documents which proves that any courtiers or appointed doctors had poisoned Sir Thomas Overbury, as I imagine that the medical care/treatment was extremely primitive in the 17th century and scores of crucial and relevant documents were instantly destroyed.
Anne Somerset had carried out thorough researched of the everyday events of King James Court and notorious event of Sir Thomas Overbury's death. She gives a reader insight into the life of King James Court, with details of the arrest of leading court figures. She gives several possible solutions in connections with relevant incidents.
It is a gripping detective story, with a series of compelling and intriguing episodes of the corruption and powerplays of the 17th century life. It was an unputdownable book!!!
on 22 February 2015
Very interesting - I thoroughly enjoyed it.