The Murder of Harriet Monkton by Elizabeth Haynes

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The Murder of Harriet Monkton by Elizabeth Haynes

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A fictionalised look at the true story of a Victorian crime which was never solved. A brilliant piece of writing, with an ending which blew me away.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: August 2018
Publisher: Myriad Editions
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1912408047

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But that's just it, she said. It's not Harriet, is it? Not our Harriet. It's some manufactured creature, that exists only for this blessed inquest: something to be summed up like a spirit, to be examined and pored over, to be sneered at and judged. Harriet deserves to be remembered as she was to us, not picked at like carrion.

And that was the problem: it seemed that there were two Harriets. There was the one her friends - a fellow teacher, her would-be lover, her seducer and the man who was her landlord but who was also her lover - knew. Some spoke of her as kindly, virtuous and pious, but that was before her body was found in the privy behind the chapel which she regularly attended in Bromley. She'd been poisoned - or had taken her own life, as some would prefer. After the inquest was opened another Harriet would emerge, one who was about six months pregnant and who had obviously not been living the chaste life expected of a young, unmarried woman in 1843.

I'd better begin by admitting to a couple of biases. I'm not a great reader of historical fiction, and historical crime in particular: the modern police procedural is where my heart lies. But when you receive a proof of a book by one of your favourite authors it's easy to feel that you needn't be quite so rigid about your preferences. I first encountered Elizabeth Haynes when I read Into The Darkest Corner more than seven years ago and I've recently become hooked on her DCI Louisa Smith books - Under A Silent Moon and Behind Closed Doors. I'll confess that I was rather hoping for another in the series, but I was intrigued by the thought of an accomplished writer of police procedurals turning her hand to historical fiction where a completely different set of skills would be required.

I've always been impressed by the way that Haynes has us straight into the story in her police procedurals: The Murder of Harriet Monkton has more of a slow-burn start. Relax: take time to get to know the characters and appreciate the fact that they're exquisitely drawn as there's no shortage of people who might have wanted Harriet dead. There's Frances Williams, the schoolteacher. Harriet regarded her as a friend, but Frances' feelings were rather stronger: if that became public knowledge her position as a schoolteacher would be in danger. The Reverend George Verrall appeared pious and virtuous, but his particular method of inspiring the holy spirit to enter his body would not have been appreciated by his parishioners should the facts become known. Thomas Churcher, a shoemaker, was apparently spoken for, but he'd given his heart to Harriet - the one person who didn't think that he was slow witted. Richard Field had been Harriet's landlord, but he'd seduced her when he'd already given his heart to another woman. Who murdered Harriet, and who was the father of her unborn child?

The writing is exceptional: I spent much of the book in a state of visceral terror for Harriet, not because of what would happen to her, but because of her situation whilst she was alive, as those who could have - should have - helped her refused to do so, usually with an entirely unwarranted sense of piety and righteousness. Her options were severely limited, with the workhouse being the only backstop. Haynes captures the age perfectly and she's particularly good on the precarious life of the unmarried woman, virtuous or not.

A plot based on a true story can be too constrained and is usually all the more so when research has been done to the extent it's been done in this story. Haynes has taken some liberties with facts, but they're relatively small and documented in the Afterword. Rather than being constrained the plot has a sense of completeness about it and the ending blew me away: it just seemed so right. In real life the murder might remain unsolved, but Haynes' solution is neat, realistic and entirely plausible. Perhaps the highest praise that I can give this book is to say that it won't be too long before I reread to see how it was all done.

I'd like to thank the author for sending a copy of the book to the Bookbag.

For more crime from the same period we can recommend None So Blind by Alis Hawkins.

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