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A period murder mystery, a timeless parable
on 3 April 2010
The enthralling story of the desperate and dateless of Edwardian England. There was a huge over-supply of women in the early years of the century and "the country...was practically awash with girls who couldn't find a partner at dances". This was the sad fate of Bessie Munday, Alice Burnham and Margaret Lofty, all unremarkable women,spinsters rather past their prime for the marriage market and drifting through their uneventful lives desperate to be the bride and not the bridesmaid.
And so when they met a smooth-talking good-looking conman with charisma who offered them marriage, without hesitation or consulting with their families they jumped at the chance. As victims of scams in every place and every time their happiness was short-lived,- just long enough to make a will or insurance policy in favour of their new husband and take a bath.
And when the police investigation began the women kept coming out of the closet, including two survivors, one wife in Canada and Edith Pegler "the wife he always returned to".
You couldn't find a better murder story in fiction especially as this one comes complete with a latter-day Sherlock Holmes in the form of the forensic pathologist Bernard Spilsbury and a sleuthing Rumpole of a lawyer.
The details of the murders and career of the Bernard Spilsbury are interspersed with background detail creating a vivid picture of the preoccupations and daily life of the period, such as the evidence offered that in the case of an unplumbed-in bath and a small boiler it would take twelve journeys upstairs with a bucket to fill it halfway up and twenty journeys to fill it three quarters full. No wonder baths were only an option for the wealthy!
It's a pity not more is known of the arch conman,the much married George Smith:he seemed to have a grudge against those women of a higher class than himself(he murdered these but spared his wives of a lower class)and was said to have hypnotised the Bishop of Croydon. Even his provenance and background is hazy and would repay more research,as would that of his victims who remain one-dimensional in this account.
A timeless tale of the unscrupulous preying on the desperate. Except that in 1910 they found each other via the pages of the Matrimonial Times rather than the Internet.
I throughly enjoyed it.