Murders of London: In the steps of the capital's killers by David Long

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Murders of London: In the steps of the capital's killers by David Long

Category: True Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A collection of nearly sixty murders, both solved and unsolved, committed in London since the early 19th century, though the main emphasis is on the 20th century.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 255 Date: May 2012
Publisher: Random House
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781847946720

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While the true crime specialist reader may prefer books which deal in one case in depth, there's always room for another title at the other end of the spectrum, dealing in brief with a variety of murders over the years.

This compact little volume, not much larger than a CD, recounts the basic details of nearly sixty murders in the capital, arranged in ten chapters area-by-area. Each is three pages long, accompanied by two or three colour photographs of the associated present-day scenes. The earliest is that of John Williams and the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811, in which seven people were killed on two separate occasions a fortnight apart and the suspected culprit was found hanging in his cell while awaiting further questioning. Most of the others are from the twentieth century, with a couple from the 200s and a handful from the second decade of the nineteenth century.

One of the joys of books like these (all right, joy may not be the most appropriate word, but the author concedes at the start of his introduction that 'everyone loves a good murder' as long as they're merely reading about it as history) is that a variety of well-known cases are included alongside several more obscure ones. Among the former are that of Franz Müller, who had the melancholy distinction of being the victim of the first recorded railway murder in Britain in 1864, and the pathetic story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged for murder in 1955 and whose fate almost certainly did much to advance the total abolition of capital punishment. Moreover, no book about London murders would be complete without some coverage of Dr Crippen, the American doctor who poisoned his wife in 1910 and was arrested on board ship while en route to America with his secretary and lover disguised as a boy, or Jack the Ripper and the notorious Whitechapel murders of 1888.

From more recent years are several episodes of relatively recent memory. Many of us will recall the bizarre business in 1983 of Dennis Nilsen and the blocked drains, the remarkable disappearance in 1974 of Lord Lucan after the brutal killing of his children’s nanny, the 'umbrella murder' of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in 1978, and at the start of the decade the vanishing of Muriel McKay, apparently abducted by two brothers who had originally been after the wife of News International owner Rupert Murdoch and who, like Lord Lucan, was never seen again. From 1967 are the two notorious murder and suicide cases of record producer Joe Meek and of Kenneth Halliwell, the professional failure and gay lover of the far more successful playwright Joe Orton, paralleled by the not dissimilar death in 1996 of fallen 1960s fashion icon Ossie Clarke. We might add to these the case of the Hammersmith murders of six prostitutes in 1964 and the hunt for a Jack the Stripper, thought to have been the retired boxer Freddie Mills who shot himself a year later.

For each of these there is a murder which never really made the headlines for one reason or another, and is little remembered today. One of the saddest is that of Krystyna Skarbek, daughter of a Polish count who came to England in 1940, adopted the nom de guerre Chrstine Granville and joined the Special Operations Executive, only to become in 1952 the woman dubbed by the press as 'the modern pimpernel no man could resist', stabbed to death by a stalker. Just as fascinating is the demise in 1933 of civil servant Ernest Oldham, who turned out to be a Russian double-agent in the employ of Stalin's secret police and whose final hours remain a mystery. Likewise, the shooting in 1923 of Ali Kamel Fahmi Bey, an Egyptian prince, was never satisfactorily explained, especially after his French-born wife had been tried for his murder but walked free from court.

It is almost certain that only the best-informed reader will know of all these cases. This is undoubtedly a very useful work in providing the bare bones of well-known and overlooked violent deaths, some solved and police files closed, some not. It would however have been improved as a work of reference had either a timeline of cases mentioned or an index been added. I also have some reservations about the magazine-style layout, with the first and third pages of each chapter printed on a slightly off-white wall design background, the second page in white type on black – and all in rather a small font, broken up with headings in read on a font resembling that of an old manual typewriter. The design looks appealing at first, but is rather akin to that of a novelty which soon palls.

For a look at just one case in more depth you might enjoy The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath by Jane Robins or The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale.

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