Claire Harman, previously a biographer of literary legends like Charlotte Brontë and Robert Louis Stevenson, has now set her sights on true crime with an intriguing, entertaining and occasionally gruesome mashup of mystery, biography, history and literary intrigue. Readers who delight in the likes of Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes and the dark side of 19th-century London will find a haven here.
Harman takes a storytelling approach to a crime that was the talk of 1840s London: the murder of Lord William Russell. She sets the stage with a bloody, strange murder scene; unrest between servants and employers; and a conviction and punishment that don’t completely answer all the questions swirling around the tragic events. Woven throughout is the rising tide of blame aimed at violent novels. The wealthy became increasingly concerned that such novels were giving unsavory folk all kinds of ideas—after all, look at what happened to Lord Russell. If he wasn’t safe, who was?
Armchair detectives will enjoy following along as Harman chronicles the investigation and its suspects, as well as the ways in which authors like Charles Dickens and William Thackeray were influenced by the goings-on (and, in Dickens’ case, later spurred to social activism). In two latter sections, Harman shares further fruits of her intensive research, offering a nice differentiation from present-day true crime books that cannot yet offer historical perspective.
A fascinating, exhaustively researched exploration into how art can influence society and vice versa, Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens’s London turns an unflinching eye to the ways in which biases born of economic inequality affect the way crimes are investigated and prosecuted. It’s a true crime devotee’s delight.