On April 26th, 1871, a police constable walking one of London’s remotest beats stumbled upon a brutalized young woman kneeling on a muddy road—gashes were cloven into her skull; her left cheek was slashed open and smashed-in; her right eye was destroyed; and above it a chunk of the temporal bone had been bashed out. The policeman gaped in horror as the woman held out her hand before collapsing into the mud, muttering “let me die” and slipping into a coma. Five days later, she died, her identity still unknown.
Within hours of her discovery on Kidbrooke Lane scores of the officers of Greenwich Division were involved in the investigation, and Scotland Yard had sent one of its top detectives, John Mulvany, to lead it. After five days of gathering evidence, the police discovered the girl’s identity: Jane Maria Clouson, a maid in the house of the renowned Pook family . . . and she was two months’ pregnant with Edmund Pook’s child when she died.
Murphy carefully reviews the evidence in the light of 21st century forensic science in order to identify Jane’s killer as Edmund Walter Pook. Using a surprisingly abundant collection of primary sources, Murphy aims to recreate the drama of the case as it unfolded, with its many twists and turns, from the discovery of the body to the final crack of the gavel—and beyond.
The blurb of this book is misleading. I had expected a straight true-crime story but the book goes beyond that. That’s because the murder wasn’t ‘just’ a murder. The author has to go beyond that and also delve into Victorian society and explain why it was such an issue that a middle-class man was put on trial for murdering a working class girl (that used to be his family’s servant) but not convicted. Without more context, some of the events following Jane’s death are incomprehensible to the modern reader.
However, the author overdoes the ‘going beyond the case’ sometimes. There are quite extensive details of two other trials that made headlines back then but the only connection to Jane’s murder trial is that they had some of the same personnel. A few sentences about that would have been enough. Instead, we get almost a chapter that just deals with these cases and none of it adds anything to the story of Jane’s murder. And it doesn’t remain the only aside where I couldn’t see the point of (though the others aren’t quite as long).
Well, and for the “Murphy carefully reviews the evidence in the light of 21st-century forensic science in order to identify Jane’s killer”-part. Well…the forensic evidence consists of blood-stained clothes that we don’t have anymore so the author has to rely on descriptions that might or might not be accurate. Granted, together with some eyewitness testimony that wasn’t accepted as evidence in the trial he makes a good case. I’ve had authors try to convince me that a certain person is Jack the Ripper on much less but the blurb makes it sound as if the author had identified the killer beyond reasonable doubt and that is certainly not the case. (To be fair: that is pretty much impossible in such an old murder).
Overall the book was interesting, and I don’t even mind the ‘wrong packaging’ because some social context is necessary for understanding the case. But not as much as the author gives.
ARC received in exchange for an honest review.