BOOK REVIEW: Murder by the Book: The crime that shocked Victorian literary London

By Claire Harman

Who would want to butcher in his sleep this unobtrusive minor aristocrat, with his afternoons at Brooks’s and his restrained widower habits?”

MURDER BY THE BOOK COVERI’m not overfond of airports or aeroplanes – in fact, I would describe myself as having mild aviophobia – so tend, when flying, to struggle concentrating on a book for any length of time. I therefore take care always to slip something moderately light (in a literary sense) into my bag before leaving home, hoping to distract myself from squealing children, sharp-boned neighbours, unexpected turbulence and other minor irritants likely to arise at 40,000 feet.

Returning last week from Cyprus, I opted to read Murder by the Book after seeing it recommended in The Guardian’s: The 50 biggest books of autumn 2018, where it was described as focusing on a “killer’s claim to have been inspired by a sensational novel, and the debate about fiction that ensued.” Perfect. An authentic whodunnit with an added literary twist: just the thing to assuage frightful, in-flight thoughts of plummeting out of the sky.

I started reading shortly before take-off and was pleased to discover the award-winning biographer, Claire Harman had created an undemanding but entertaining historical account that read like a thriller.

On the morning of 6th May 1840, a housemaid discovered her elderly master at home in bed with his throat slit so deeply his head was all but severed. Suicide was at first suspected, but it quickly became apparent the police were investigating a savage murder.

Lord William Russell was the third and youngest son of the Marquess of Tavistock, whose beloved wife, Lady Charlotte Villiers, had died some thirty years earlier. He lived alone (but for three servants) in a modest property in London’s upmarket Mayfair and was familiar to those who frequented the great salons of Holland House and Gore House, the Royal Academy and Buckingham Palace itself.

This is really too horrid!
(Queen Victoria)

From royalty to the most impoverished ragamuffin, Londoners were enthralled by every gory detail of Russell’s murder. It also provoked intense debate about censorship, in particular, a contemporary work of fiction: Jack Sheppard by William Harrison Ainsworth, because the suspected murderer was revealed to have read the novel before committing this apparently motiveless crime. Leading writers of the day, among them Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray were dragged into the controversy, and it seemed that literature itself had been put on trial.

Collating much previously unpublished information, Harman shows how a murderer can become a celebrity. In addition to the main narrative, she helpfully provides an addendum, Unanswered Questions, in which she re-examines evidence, discusses motive and raises several intriguing questions. She also, in a chapter entitled Persons of Interest, supplies brief biographical information on all the people connected with the case.

So, did Murder by the Book divert my mind from more immediate thoughts? Happily, I can report that it served its function well: I made it from Larnaca to Manchester without going into meltdown or publicly revealing my inner wuss.

…such a wound could never have been inflicted casually; the knife must have been forced down hard, as on to a recalcitrant Sunday roast.”

Many thanks to Viking for providing an advance review copy of this title.

Categories: Book Reviews, Non-Fiction

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25 replies

  1. True Crime fiction has that other kind of edge to it, and is fascinating. I like that the author offered up answers and a section on persons of interest. Did they find out who did it?

  2. Sounds intriguing! Why on earth did they suspect suicide, however briefly? Who on earth would be able to almost sever their own head in that way?! I can’t stand airports either so I’ll definitely remember this for the next time I have to endure one of those awful places 🙂

    • I too thought it rather silly but that was the Victorian-era police for you. Glad to know I’m not alone in my dislike of airports! 😄

      • There was a local death in the early 20c just up the road from my old house, in which a young woman ran upstairs screaming, only to be found with a slit throat. Her death was also thought to be suicide at first. I thought the same as madamebibilophile when I read that.

  3. URGH, that Sunday roast comparison is hideous but so evocative!

  4. I’m so glad you found the perfect book to help focus your mind on reading and not flying.

    This is a true crime novel? How fascinating! In Unanswered Questions, does Harman pull in evidence found after-the-story, or explore ideas which were identified later? I always wonder for historical true crime if the accused is truly the perpetrator this many years later…

  5. I’m in the middle of this book at the moment and finding it quite entertaining. I’m glad it helped you through your flight!

  6. Sounds fantastic! But suicide, really?

  7. I hadn’t heard of this but it sounds so intriguing.

  8. Fascinating! I’ve been looking to read more true crime since I finished In Cold Blood in March, and this seems like the perfect book to add to the list. The literary twist is so interesting. Happy to hear it also helped take your mind off flying!

  9. Something inside me want the title to be a literal translation and the killer killing someone by smashing them with a book.


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