In the early hours of May 6, 1840, Lord William Russell was found dead in his bed at his London home, his throat so savagely cut that his head was almost severed.
The murder and bungled robbery prompted a quote from the queen (“Too horrid!”) and generated panic. These were fractious times in the capital in which the unemployed and disenfranchised were rallying to be heard. If an unassuming minor aristocrat couldn’t sleep safely at night in the city’s most exclusive and well-protected neighborhood, then who could?
The crime became the talk of the town, gripping Londoners far and wide, high and low. The other hot conversation topic was a critically mauled yet commercially popular book published the year before: William Harrison Ainsworth’s “Jack Sheppard,” a so-called “Newgate novel” that glamorized vice and made heroes of villains — in this case, a dastardly housebreaker. One infamous scene involved a slit throat and a botched burglary.
Might Lord William’s killer be a reader who found the details of the perfect copycat crime in the pages of a book?
British biographer Claire Harman came upon this little known mystery during her research into the life of Charlotte Brontë. In “Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens’s London,” she takes us through the many twists and turns of the case, from the death of the victim to the execution of the perpetrator. Along the way, she illuminates the appeal of the lurid “felon literature” of the day — and the dangerous effects of that one in particular.
Harman brilliantly reconstructs the crime and its impact, revealing how an address became a site of “ghoulish tourism” and a reward for information was funded partly by the family of the “notable corpse” and partly by the government. She then proceeds in carefully measured stages, re-creating the inquest, the investigation and the trial.
We hear how in their hunt for the culprit, the police quickly turned their attention from the restless underclass on the streets to Lord William’s servants indoors. Suspects included the maid, the cook and the valet. This spoiler-free review can disclose only that one appeared in court charged with the master’s murder. However, it didn’t help the accused’s cause when they admitted to being motivated by Ainsworth’s fiendish tale.
“Murder by the Book” does not read like a Victorian whodunit or 19th-century melodrama. Harman tells the story straight, without recourse to suspense or surprises. Instead she keeps us captivated through a series of hard facts and incredible events: showing how “Jack Sheppard” grew into “a hydra-headed, extra-literary phenomenon”; describing how the defense counsel “tossed and gored” each witness; and reporting Dickens’ and Thackeray’s interest in the case, reaction to the book and horrified account of the hanging.
This is an assiduously researched and superbly written book that ends with Harman examining unanswered questions, and reminding us that truth can be stranger than fiction, particularly when inspired by it.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Murder by the Book
By: Claire Harman.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 272 pages, $25.95.