Living, as I do, in the North of England, I'm not hugely familiar with London and even less so with the east of the city, so it's been remarkably refreshing to read The Dark Side of East London and to learn things about the east end which I never knew existed. True, I'd heard the old Victorian myths and legends which sort of define the area, the most notorious being Jack the Ripper's association with its mean and murky streets, but what I didn't realise was that, in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, this area was blamed for so much social injustice, and thus was, ultimately accountable for pioneering social change within its boundaries.
The book is divided into nine absorbing chapters which highlight the darker days of crime and punishment, and as detail emerges, what becomes apparent is that this area of London was nearly always at the sharp end of the action. I think my favourite chapter has to be “Poison for the Asking”, as in the days before the 1868 Pharmacy Act it was all too easy for people to get their hands on noxious substances which they used, either in ignorance, or malice, with devastating and often, catastrophic effect.
The author writes with knowledgeable insight into this area, it is, after all, a place he knows like the back of his hand. However, what’s so important is that his zeal and passion comes across in the stories he shares and in the amount of meticulous research which has gone into bringing the book to life. There is much to take in, and because of that, this is not a book to whiz through at high speed, rather it is more to be savoured slowly, allowing the facts to unfold in fascinating detail. The book also shares some specially commissioned photographs which help to put old and new into context and which show those areas which have been highlighted in the stories.
Those who are acquainted with this area will no doubt be familiar with some of its dark and convoluted history. I think that the author has done a commendable job of highlighting, perhaps, some of the more forgotten, but no less remarkable, history of The Dark Side of East London.
Being a voracious reader of historical true crime, and living in London, I was keen to get hold of this book. And I was glad that I did. David Charnick knows his London well, being a tour guide. Not only does he give helpful reference points to sites of events, but he also gives great background regarding the social milieu at the times discussed. Many books of this genre are not well backed up with references and research, unlike David's. In addition, he avoids the well worn and tired path of certain historical crimes and events. 90% of the cases in the book I had never heard of before. He is not averse to adding a little humour where appropriate. He also tackles what are rather uncomfortable social problems and criminal offences with sensitivity and tact. These cases demonstrate issues that transcend the centuries and which still blight societies to this day. The photographs bring the locations bang up to date, David's writing style is learned, engaging and sensitive, perfect for exploring the subject matter at hand. I was sorry when I finished the book, I enjoyed it so much. This would be a perfect Christmas present for any true crime buff or historian. Or maybe just treat yourself.