Full title: Murders of London: In the Steps of the Capital’s Killers by David Long.
Looking at the cover design on-line I had expected this to be a similar format as Long’s recent books, what might be called “sub-coffee table”. So I was rather surprised to find out that it’s a return to more pocket size at about five inches by six. The contents are arranged geographically in chapters, each of which in turn contain accounts of individual murders, or in some cases sprees (Nilsen, Jack the Ripper &c.).
With the exception of the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811, most crimes covered in the book are from the mid-Victorian period and right up to 2006 (the radioactive assassination of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko). The enjoyment of reading such episodes stems from – let’s face it – prurience and voyeurism. But we learn much about the changes over the period in police, forensic science, the law, capital punishment and so on. I was quite surprised to discover, for example, that until the 1940s accomplices in murder were hanged side-by-side, occasioning hangmen like Albert Pierrepoint (who appears frequently in the book) to call in extra staff.
The crimes involve politics, espionage, domestic squabbles, bigamy, fraud, conspiracy – using weapons and methods from Cluedo and way beyond. They range from the famous and notorious (Lucan, Crippen) to the downright seedy. All, in one way or another, caught the imagination of the public via the press and yet most are now forgotten and hence well worth the reminder. I was fascinated to find out that west London retail magnate William Whiteley – a pillar of society to the outside world although less so to his own staff – was murdered in 1907 by a man who claimed to be his illegitimate son. Also, I had no idea that the toast of 1960s swinging London – Ossie Clark – met a violent end in 1996. Enough spoilers from me, but this book is crammed with rich stories such as these.
All the accounts are illustrated with contemporary photos by the author himself of the addresses where these crimes happened. Or where they still exist, for in many cases the original buildings have long disappeared. But one gets a sense of the sheer banality of the backdrops to these crimes – terraced housing, cheap lodgings etc. – but logically, how else could it be? However, when it comes to the acts themselves and their dramatis personae, one sees that each is totally unique and utterly intriguing. Furthermore, they are delivered by Long in his usual elegant style.
If you’d like a taster, there’s a web site associated with the book, here.
Murders of London: in the Steps of the Capital’s Killers (256 pp) is published by Random House with a cover price of £12.99, although available for less. Warmly recommended.