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review 2019-10-13 20:34
A must read for anybody interested in London crime history
The 19th Century Underworld. Crime, Controversy & Corruption - Stephen Carver

Thanks to Rosie Croft, from Pen & Sword, for providing me a hardback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

I am not a scholar in the topic of XIX century Britain, London in particular, although I have read a number of fictional books set on that period and place (it has always proved popular, especially with crime writers, for evident reasons) both recent and from the era, and also some historical books (some of the best coming from Pen & Sword as well) on specific aspects of the era, like children’s deaths. I was therefore not sure about what I would find here but hoped that it would enhance my understanding and give me a better sense of what life might have been like, away from the sometimes romanticised version we have of the Victorian era. This volume did that and more.

The book, which contains illustrations of the period as well (some black and white photographs, but mostly sketches and ink drawings that appeared in publications of that era, with a separate table of illustrations), contains facts and descriptions of the less savoury aspects of the XIX century life in London, but the emphasis is not on a XXI century perspective, but on written (and illustrated) sources of the period, and how the different topics were approached by the press, literature, and theatre of the time (movies are also mentioned, although those are references to later versions of the stories and characters discussed). Although most of us will be familiar with the penny dreadfuls, the author shares his expertise and offers us a catalogue of publications, authors (quite a few anonymous), publishers, guides and popular venues that reflect the fact that the hunger for certain types of subjects and the morbid interest in crime and vice are nothing new.

The book combines scholarship (there are detailed footnotes including information and sometimes explanations about the quotes and sources used in the text, at the end of the book, and also a lengthy bibliography and an index) with an engaging writing style, and manages to include plenty of information in each chapter, without cramming too much detail or leaving us with the impression that we are missing the most important part of the story. Although I’m sure most readers will be intrigued by some of the events and characters mentioned in the book and will want to learn more about them, Carver facilitates that task with his sources, and this book is a goldmine for researchers, writers, and anybody interested in the era in general. I usually mark passages I find interesting, to research later or to mention in my review, and in this case I can honestly say I broke the record for number of notes.

To give you an idea of the topics, I’ll briefly (-ish) go through the chapters. Chapter 1: Various Crimes and Misdemeanours, where the author explains that our view of the XIX century underworld is a product of popular culture, and he explains the efforts the society of the time made to try to categorise and control the crime in the capital. Patrick Colquhoun, a Scottish businessman and magistrate who liaised with Jeremy Bentham (a philosopher and social reformer we studied in Criminology for his ideas about prisons and reforms) wrote a book called A Treatise of the Police of the Metropolis in 1796, where he classified the criminals in London into 24 separate categories and estimated that there were around 115000 of them. The Radcliffe Highway murders and how these influenced some of the legal reforms are also discussed in detail.

Chapter 2: A Corinthian’s Guide to the Metropolis, talks about bare-knuckle boxing, betting, and also about a number of articles, guides, and books, purporting to inform discerning gentlemen of the entertainments and lifestyle that could be found in this part of town. We learn where Tom and Jerry came from (Pierce Egan’s writings and his characters seem to have inspired Hanna and Barbera), and the author notes that at this point (early in XIX century), the underworld was not represented as the gothic nightmare it would become later.

In Chapter 3: Bad Books for Bad People, we hear about authors that are more familiar to us, like Dickens and Thackeray, although also some others who’ve faded into oblivion mostly because their take on the topic lost the favour of the Victorians. They chose to write about criminals and outlaws (like Dick Turpin), but not in an overly moralistic or condemnatory manner, and although that was popular at first, later reformists condemned that stance, and it resulted in their loss of popularity and later ruin. There are wonderful examples of the use of jargon and vernacular, very popular at the beginning of the period but that would later fall out of fashion.  (This chapter reminded me of the gangster movies of the 1930s, which could depict violent and immoral characters as long as they ended up getting their just deserts).

Chapter 4: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, looks at the Resurrectionists, those who stole bodies from graves and sold them to medical schools. Although I’ve read some fiction about the subject and knew about Hare and Burke, I didn’t quite realise it was such an organised trade and the huge amounts of money involved. The inquiries and the law changes these incidents caused are discussed, and it is difficult to imagine how such events could have been ignored for so long, but there were powerful interests at play.

Chapter 5: The Real Oliver Twist, focuses on how life was like for children living in poverty, and it reminds us that studies of the 1840s showed that half the children born in the UK at that time died before age five. Children living of picking up dog’s dung, or being trained to become pickpockets or worse were not only the protagonists of fictional stories. They were all too real.

Chapter 6: Fallen Women, talks about prostitution, and I was fascinated by the author’s account of the biography and writings of French writer and activist Flora Tristan, a woman who was a feminist, a social commentator and reformer, who rather than blame prostitution on women’s lack of morals, blamed society and the lack of opportunities for women to get an education and make an honest living. She talked to prostitutes and wrote about what she found in 1840 and she anticipated some of Marx and Engels ideas. A woman I definitely want to learn more about.

Chapter 7: The Greeks Had a Word for It, talks about pornography, the ups and downs its publishers went through (as the period grew less and less tolerant), and it starts by reminding readers of the fact that pornography as a subject is very ancient, as people digging in Pompeii and Herculaneum found out. Many ancient objects of this nature that were recovered made it into private collections, mostly those of discerning gentlemen, and many museums had (and still have) hidden stashes of them. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this chapter, not because of the topic, or the content of the books mentioned (although some of the samples are hilarious) but because of the cat-and-mouse games writers and publishers played with the authorities and also of the evident hypocrisy of the whole endeavour.

Chapter 8: The Death Hunters, treats about what the author describes as “another type of pornography”, the interest in crimes and murders. True murder is not a new genre and although there were not many murders in London (or even the whole of Britain) at the time, the public appetite for it was huge, and sometimes writers would make them up. I had a chuckle at some of Illustrated Police News headlines (‘A Burglar Bitten by a Skeleton’ and ‘A Wife Driven Insane by a Husband Tickling her Feet’ are my favourites). The chapter ends up with Jack the Ripper’s murders, which the author elaborates further on Chapter 9: A Highly Popular Murder, where he notes that much of the speculation about the murders was created by media, and Jack the Ripper has become a phenomenon that combines reality with fiction. He does note that while the Ripper has grown in attention and popularity over the years, little time is dedicated to the victims. I am pleased to say that there is a new book due to be published by Pen & Sword about the victims of Jack the Ripper, and I hope to comment on it in the future.

I recommend this book to anybody interested in London history, history about crime in the XIX century, researchers and writers keen on exploring and writing on any of the topics covered in the book, and to anybody who wants to gain a different perspective on the London of the Victorian era. Highly recommended.

 

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review 2019-10-03 21:40
Chase Darkness With Me / Billy Jensen
Chase Darkness with Me: How One True-Crime Writer Started Solving Murders - Billy Jensen

Have you ever wanted to solve a murder? Gather the clues the police overlooked? Put together the pieces? Identify the suspect?

Journalist Billy Jensen spent fifteen years investigating unsolved murders, fighting for the families of victims. Every story he wrote had one thing in common―they didn't have an ending. The killer was still out there.

But after the sudden death of a friend, crime writer and author of I'll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamara, Billy became fed up. Following a dark night, he came up with a plan. A plan to investigate past the point when the cops had given up. A plan to solve the murders himself.

You'll ride shotgun as Billy identifies the Halloween Mask Murderer, finds a missing girl in the California Redwoods, and investigates the only other murder in New York City on 9/11. You'll hear intimate details of the hunts for two of the most terrifying serial killers in history: his friend Michelle McNamara's pursuit of the Golden State Killer and his own quest to find the murderer of the Allenstown Four. And Billy gives you the tools―and the rules―to help solve murders yourself.

 

3 to 3.5 stars??

I’m very conflicted about this book. On the one hand, I read it cover to cover as quickly as I could. On the other hand, there were a bunch of things that bothered me about it. The author was one of the people responsible for getting Michelle McNamara’s book I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer finished and ready for publication. And I appreciate that, because I loved that book. Jensen admits that he’s not the writer that McNamara was and I’d agree with him on that assessment.

Here’s one of my issues--he tries to keep so many balls in the air, juggling a variety of crimes, like some ADD true crime addict. I can’t help but speculate that he would do more conspicuous good if he’d limit himself a bit and concentrate on one or two cases at a time.

Another thing that bugs me: what his wife and family have to put up with, i.e. what seems like a lot of absence and neglect. They must be very forgiving people, because I don’t think I’d put up with it. I don’t think that this is someone to be taking life advice from, not if you value your relationships anyway.

There’s absolutely no doubt that there are a plethora of true crime podcasts, radio shows, and books in the market right now and that more and more people are attempting to make their mark by solving cold cases. What I truly did appreciate was the chapter on how to conduct yourself should you choose to follow in their footsteps. Advice to be professional, not using people’s names in public forums like Facebook and Twitter when they are leads or suspects, not doxxing your competitors, and in general being polite and staying as neutral as possible. If you are going to do this, do it the right way and don’t be an internet troll. Think carefully about it, as this isn’t just a hobby, it has the potential to ruin people’s lives if you come to the wrong conclusions.

Although I can’t say that I’m not intrigued by this phenomenon, I do recognize that I don’t have the obsessive nature required to do a good job of these tasks. I think I will stick to family genealogy research and leave crime to those better suited to that pursuit.

In the meanwhile, I’m enjoying the modern take on the true crime book. If you enjoyed this book, I would highly recommend I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer and True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray.

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review 2019-09-30 14:43
Terrible True Crime Book That Focuses on Everything but the Subject of the Book
The Wilderness of Ruin - Roseanne Montillo

Not too much to say except I echo the other readers who complained about this book being about everything except Jesse Pomeroy. Montillo seems to want to show her research into everything but him and we focus on the history of Boston, the Boston Great Fire, Herman freaking Melville, and honestly I think left a big question mark about whether Pomeroy was the person who murdered Katie Curran.

 

"The Wilderness of Ruin" is a true crime book focusing on the United States youngest serial killer, Jesse Pomeroy. Born in 1859, in Boston, the young boy had a deformity of the eye that causes a lot of people to think he was ill. Even his own father beat Pomeroy and it seems that Jesse's sexual compulsion to whip young boys sprung from his own beatings by his father.

 

Between 1871 and 1872 young boys around Boston were being led away by an older boy with a strange eye who would tie them up, hang them up, and proceed to beat, whip, and in some cases stab them. Montillo then leads us to how the police eventually figure out who the abductor is and what happens next. 

 

Unfortunately Montilio then jumps around in the book (the first of many instances) and instead of us following Pomeroy, she goes into details on Boston itself, how the fire chief at the time, John Damrell, was concerned about how Boston would someday have a fire as bad as Chicago. And I think there was also another instance of getting into Herman Melville. I honestly forget at this point, but let's say a good 2/3 of this book had zero to do with Pomeroy. 


The writing I found okay, but the flow was just terrible. I think if Montillo had kept the book focused on Pomeroy and his crimes that would have been better. The segues into other things as I mentioned above take away the main focus of this book. 

The setting of the book goes from the 1850s to the 1932 and I thought how odd it was that Montillo doesn't get into how the Great War would have affected Jesse's family. We hear about how his older brother got married and had children and that was it. We find out about his mother, but his father is mentioned a handful of times and that's it. It was so strange how Jesse started to feel like an after thought to this book which seemed to be all about the things that happened in Boston in a 70 year time period. 

 

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text 2019-09-27 21:16
Reading progress update: I've read 60%.
The Wilderness of Ruin - Roseanne Montillo

Yeesh. Too much other stuff being pushed in here and we are finally back to Pomeroy in jail.

 

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text 2019-09-27 18:54
Reading progress update: I've read 25%.
The Wilderness of Ruin - Roseanne Montillo

Reading about the Great Boston Fire was okay. I just don't know why Monitillo went into such detail on it. Also, I can 100 percent say I never heard about this event before now. The Great Chicago fire, yes, this, nope.

 

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