Book review: A true-crime thriller from Victorian England resonates today
The crime at the core of “Murder by the Book” by Claire Harman stunned London for months. Yet Harman’s book is not so much focused on the uncovering of a murderer as it is on dissecting the London not only of Queen Victoria, but the London of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray as well.
Along the way, the book also becomes a subtle reminder that media-roused controversy is not as contemporary an “art form” as we might think it to be.
The horrific death of Lord William Russell occurred during the early hours of May 6, 1840, “his throat cut so deeply that the windpipe was sliced right through and the head almost severed.” That murder was to upend the teeming city from its political, social and cultural underpinnings with frightening alacrity.
Harman characterizes Lord William as an “unobtrusive minor aristocrat, with his afternoons at the club and his restrained widower habits.” If he could be murdered, was anyone safe in a London “teeming with immigrants, the unemployed, and a burgeoning working class who were more literate and organized than ever before”?
That question informs every page of this new book from the author of a number of highly respected literary biographies of British writers, from Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen to Robert Louis Stevenson.
“Murder by the Book” can be read two ways. It is a true crime thriller, and it is a rigorous cultural history. The thriller has a quasi-ambitious, if limited, manservant at its center; the history has all of London.
There’s no need for spoiler alerts about the book as thriller. Early on, Harman tells us that François Benjamin Courvoisier, Lord William’s manservant, admitted to the crime. Born in Switzerland in 1816, Courvoisier hoped to improve his lot by coming to London.
Yet, truly, the fascinating element of “Murder by the Book” turns out to be its commentary on the culture of mid-19th-century London, specifically the literary London of Dickens and Thackeray and of William Harrison Ainsworth.
In 1839, Ainsworth first serialized his novel “Jack Sheppard,” the chronicle of an unapologetic, charming bandit who was especially adept at escaping paying for his crimes. The character was so popular that a half-dozen plays about him were eventually running in London at the same time.
Each of the plays became, say, the “Hamilton” of its day. They were enormous successes, so much so that into the lobbies of those plays came “an unwelcome new development”: Sheppard merchandising.
Then François Courvoisier admitted that he learned his criminal proclivities from the exploits of Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard.
How “Murder by the Book” makes use of its two disparate elements is its great success. Harman shows how Courvoisier became London’s media “darling,” even on the morning of his hanging.
The execution on the grounds of Newgate Prison attracted an estimated 40,000 individuals, from every walk of Victorian life. Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray were there. Madame Tussaud’s even obtained permission to make a death mask of the murderer to display at the famous London wax museum.
Harman’s book is a scholarly page-turner. It is meticulously researched: Harman even appends a list of Persons of Interest, extensive pages of Notes, and a complete Index. There are also maps and photographs (including one of that notorious death mask).
But the real success of “Murder by the Book” is in how subtly and scrupulously Claire Harman links Victorian England to our contemporary social and artistic landscapes. The parallels are astonishing.
Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.