Crippen by John Boyne

Crippen I read my first John Boyne book, the Gothic ghost story This House is Haunted, last year just in time for Halloween. Since then I’ve been wanting to read another of his books and this novel, based on a real-life crime which took place in London more than a century ago, is the one I chose. It turned out to be a good choice because I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed This House is Haunted, although the two books are quite different.

Crippen is a fictional account of the life of the notorious murderer, Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen, who was found guilty of murdering his wife and hiding the remains in the cellar of his home at 39 Hilldrop Crescent. It sounds very morbid and gruesome, I know, but the book is actually not as dark as you might imagine thanks to Boyne’s sense of humour, colourful characters and storytelling flair.

The story begins in the summer of 1910 and introduces us to a group of passengers on board the SS Montrose, sailing from Belgium to Canada. There’s Mrs Drake, a demanding, overbearing woman, and her daughter, Victoria, who is hoping to find romance on the journey. Then there’s Martha Hayes, who would prefer to hide herself away in her cabin with a pile of novels than mix with the other passengers, and Matthieu Zela, a Frenchman travelling with his obnoxious nephew, Tom. And finally, we meet Mr Robinson and his teenage son, Edmund, who are hoping for a quiet and uneventful journey.

If you’re not already familiar with the Crippen murder case, you might be wondering what the relevance is of the Atlantic voyage I’ve just described. I can promise you it is very relevant, although we don’t find out why until later in the book. Before we reach that point, we go back in time to the 1860s where we follow the young Hawley Harvey Crippen through his childhood in Michigan. As a teenager he decides he wants to study medicine, but when his parents refuse to help him financially it seems unlikely that Hawley will ever become a fully qualified doctor. After marrying Cora Turner, a music hall singer, the Crippens move to London where Hawley becomes an assistant in a homeopathic medicines company. Several years later, Cora disappears, her friends become convinced she has been murdered, and Hawley finds himself under suspicion…

Before beginning this book, I had heard of Dr Crippen but didn’t know any of the details of the case. I didn’t even know that there was so much controversy surrounding it. Boyne presents an interesting theory as to what may have actually happened, though I have no idea whether there could be any truth to this theory or not – I suspect there probably isn’t, but the book certainly does show Crippen in a much more sympathetic light than you might expect. It would be hard not to feel sorry for Boyne’s portrayal of a boy forced to abandon his dreams, a quiet and mild-mannered man bullied and abused by his selfish, manipulative wife.

My only complaint is that it was difficult to know exactly which parts of the novel were fictional and which weren’t. I looked up some factual information about Hawley Harvey Crippen after I read the book and was surprised to find that Boyne had changed so many biographical details, such as the names of Crippen’s parents and the fact that his first wife had actually died of a stroke rather than a road accident as described in the novel. When writing a fictional account of a real person’s life, it’s obvious that things like conversations, thoughts and emotions will have to be invented, but I’m not sure what the point was in altering all those little details.

Anyway, I didn’t worry about any of this until after I’d finished the book. While I was reading I was completely captivated by the twists and turns of the story and by Boyne’s wonderful writing style. I’m looking forward to exploring the rest of his novels now!

This House is Haunted by John Boyne

A lonely mansion, a young governess, two young children in white nightgowns, servants who seem to vanish into thin air, villagers who refuse to answer any questions, gusts of wind that blow up out of nowhere and disappear as suddenly as they came…

“You are not there, Father,” I cried. “I wake up at Gaudlin Hall, I spend most of my day there, I sleep there at night. And throughout it all there is but one thought running through my mind.”

“And that is?”

“This house is haunted.”

This House is Haunted This House is Haunted is a wonderful Victorian-style ghost story and a perfect October read.

It begins in London with a public reading by Charles Dickens, attended by young schoolteacher Eliza Caine and her invalid father, a big admirer of Dickens. As they walk home in the cold after the reading, her father’s health worsens and he dies shortly after, leaving Eliza blaming Dickens for his death. Alone in the world, Eliza decides to answer an advertisement in the newspaper and finds herself being offered the position of governess at Gaudlin Hall in Norfolk.

Arriving at the train station, she experiences what will be the first in a series of unexplained and increasingly sinister incidents when she feels a pair of ghostly hands try to push her under a moving train. Eliza survives this attack and continues to her destination where she meets her two young charges, twelve-year-old Isabella and eight-year-old Eustace Westerley, but it soon becomes obvious that something is wrong. Isabella and Eustace appear to be alone in the house and won’t tell Eliza where their parents are or when she will be able to speak to them. As she slowly pieces together the truth about Gaudlin Hall and learns the fates of the previous governesses, Eliza begins to fear for her own life.

I loved this book. It reminded me of The Séance by John Harwood, though there were shades of lots of other novels too, from Jane Eyre to The Turn of the Screw. Dickens is another big influence; as well as the author himself appearing in the book’s opening scenes, the characters also have suitably Dickensian names, such as Mr Raisin the lawyer, who has a clerk called Mr Cratchett. I really liked the narrator, Eliza, and it was a pleasure to spend 300 pages in her company. The author has obviously made an effort to create an authentic Victorian narrative voice and it worked well, though I did notice a few inaccuracies and words that felt too modern.

Although this is a very atmospheric book, I didn’t find it a very scary one – it’s too predictable and the ghostly manifestations are a bit too ridiculous (the tone of the novel seemed to be somewhere between serious ghost story and parody). But this didn’t make the book any less enjoyable, entertaining and fun to read and once I got past the first few chapters I didn’t want to put it down.

I highly recommend This House is Haunted if you’re looking for something ghostly and Victorian to read as we approach Halloween – I enjoyed this much more than The Woman in Black!

I received a copy of this book for review via Netgalley.