Murder by the Book by Claire Harman

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but I’ve been reading more of it than usual over the last few weeks in preparation for Nonfiction November. Murder by the Book, an account of a true crime which took place in Victorian London, sounded appealing to me because it promised to explore the possible links between the crime and some of the bestselling novels of the day.

The book begins by describing the events of 6th May 1840, when Lord William Russell’s housemaid found her master in bed with his throat slit. Suicide was suspected at first, but with his head almost severed from his body, this theory was dismissed and a murder investigation began. Russell, an elderly widower, had been leading a quiet, unremarkable life, living alone (apart from his servants) in a respectable Mayfair street. Who could possibly have wanted him dead – and why?

The murder sent shockwaves throughout London, with everyone – including Queen Victoria herself – following the news and voicing their opinions. What made this particular case so shocking was that when the culprit was identified and questioned, it was found that before committing the murder he had been reading Jack Sheppard, a well-known novel by William Harrison Ainsworth. Based on the story of a real life 18th century criminal, Jack Sheppard had been published as a serial in Bentley’s Miscellany from January 1839 until February 1840. With plots involving murder, theft and violence, crime novels of this type had become known as ‘Newgate Novels’ (a reference to the Newgate Prison), and were hugely popular with the public, partly due to the rise in literacy levels during the first half of the 19th century. Following the Russell murder, a debate began regarding the suitability of this sort of reading material.

I enjoyed Murder by the Book, but I didn’t find the true crime element particularly interesting. There didn’t seem to be a lot of mystery surrounding Russell’s death and the murderer was arrested quite quickly. Although Claire Harman did manage to flesh the story out, on its own it wouldn’t have been enough to form a compelling book. The parts where she discussed Jack Sheppard and other popular novels of the time were of much more interest to me. I haven’t read Jack Sheppard, or anything else by William Harrison Ainsworth, and I’d had no idea that it had been so successful in its time. The book was adapted for stage many times, including some musical versions, so even if people hadn’t read it they were likely to have seen it performed.

The reactions of other authors were interesting; Charles Dickens had apparently been a friend of Ainsworth’s, but distanced himself from him after the Russell incident, doing all he could to defend the reputation of his own Oliver Twist, which covered similar themes. Both Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray followed the outcome of the murder trial and attended the hanging of the culprit and some of their thoughts on this are given in the book.

Anyway, the social aspects of the book were fascinating, even if the true crime parts weren’t – although I was surprised that Claire Harman didn’t draw more parallels between the Jack Sheppard controversy and the perceived influence of modern television, music and video games on violent behaviour. The book reminded me of Kate Summerscale’s The Wicked Boy and I think if you enjoy one you might enjoy the other.

Thanks to Viking for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

16 thoughts on “Murder by the Book by Claire Harman

  1. Calmgrove says:

    Yes, I was waiting for you to describe how this study referenced possible modern day parallels but, as with Harmon’s book, it remained the elephant in the room.

    Maybe she felt the jury was still out over the influence of video nasties and Grand Theft Auto, who knows? Mind you, anything could potentially unhinge minds if they’re so inclined, certain sacred texts, for example…

    • Helen says:

      It just goes to show that the fuss over video nasties is nothing new. I thought it was strange that Harman didn’t discuss the parallels at all, though, as it would have seemed logical to do so.

  2. Café Society says:

    I was going to draw the modern day parallel as well. Some years ago, in one of our Summer Schools, we read both Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ and ‘The Moonstone’ in which Collins draws on a number of features of the real life case.

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, but I read it quite a few years after reading The Moonstone. It must have been interesting to read them both together for your Summer School.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I felt sorry for Harrison Ainsworth. Thousands of other people must have read his book without committing any crimes, so it does seem unfair to blame him for the actions of one person.

  3. FictionFan says:

    I usually find I’m more interested in the social aspects of true crime books than the actual crime. This sounds good and, from your review, it also reminded me of The Wicked Boy, and also a lit-crit I read of Huckleberry Finn which discussed “bad boy” culture in America and how it was perceived to be influenced by their equivalent of penny dreadfuls.

  4. Carmen says:

    This is the second review I read today of this book. The other reviewer loved it without reservations. Too bad you didn’t think the crime aspect was as interesting as the other threads. It is an intriguing premise regardless. I guess you, as well as the other commenters, were right to expect the mentioning of possible links between modern forms of entertainment and social violence, but no study has firmly established them, even though it is widely believed to be the case. I suppose the author thought of not venturing an opinion for fear of alienating potential readers. In any case, that’s a topic for another book.

  5. JaneGS says:

    It sounds like the premise outstripped the material—I enjoy reading about writers and their responses to things, so I think I would like that and the social history. I’m surprised Harmon didn’t discuss the impact of violent entertainment on violence. Good review!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I enjoyed reading about Ainsworth’s book and the reactions of other authors like Dickens and Thackeray. I found that much more interesting than the actual crime itself!

  6. Judy Krueger says:

    Like Carmen, I recently read another review of this. My attraction to the book comes from the connections to Dickens and Thackeray as well as the social history. As part of My Big Fat Reading Project I will soon read In His Own Write, a collection of writings by John Lennon, published in 1964. I am remembering that his killer was a reader of violent books.

    • Helen says:

      It was the mention of Dickens and Thackeray that drew me to this book, and I definitely found that aspect much more interesting than the true crime. I’ll look forward to hearing what you think of the John Lennon book. 🙂

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