The Language Of Birds – Jill Dawson (2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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This is not exactly a crime novel, although a murder is very much at its centre and it focuses on a case most readers would have some sense of familiarity with, that of children’s nanny Sandra Rivett killed by absconding aristocrat Lord Lucan in what was believed to have been a case of mistaken identity (Lucan had intended to kill his estranged wife).

The real life events from 1974 are here turned into fiction with changed names, Dawson’s reasons for this are stated in an Afterword; “The life of a victim is a hard story to tell when there are living descendants (of the Lucan family too) and others who might still be hurt. My solution was to invent new characters whose story you have just read.” I think we as readers will respect the author’s decision here. Since reading this I haven’t gone into what was known about this grubby case other than what Dawson has told us in the Afterword and my vague recollections but she does seem to have followed the framework of events closely.

The narrative switches between a third person retelling and the first-person views of Rosemary, a friend of the doomed nanny. The two meet as voluntary patients in a psychiatric hospital and when a recovered Rosemary finds work as a nanny in London, Mandy follows and finds herself in charge of the two children from the fractured Morven family assisting the fragile and not-coping Lady Katherine who is trying to break free from the enigmatic but charismatic Dickie, wrapped in underhand tactics in a custody case. The two girls waver as to who should get their sympathies.

I think what Jill Dawson does very well here is to get the feel of the mid 1970’s just right not only in its many references but particularly in the attitudes. Mandy and Rosemary feel like two young girls new to the London of 1974. There’s a lot of anger in the novel, rightly so, in a case in which time has tended to lionise the disappearing perpetrator. In many ways just as Hallie Rubenhold aimed to reclaim the victims from the hype of Jack The Ripper in her non-fiction work “The Five” Dawson here has managed to move the focus back to the real-life victim Sandra Rivett perhaps even more effectively, especially as the character of Mandy is so vibrant and well-drawn.

There’s an element of imagery going on in the title and on occasions within the text based upon bird communication. At one point it takes the form of auditory hallucinations by swans and pigeons which caused Rosemary’s mental health episode but I’m not sure that this fits into the feel of the novel or understand why it is there. The relevance of this and of the title of the novel has passed me by.  It is not what I will remember this book for which is the great feel for the period, strong characterisation and the build up of dread as to how what we know is inevitable will pan out and the ramifications for those caught up in the grisly events.

fourstars

The Language Of Birds was published in hardback by Sceptre in April 2019.

Oct 19 Update – Read about Jill Dawson at the Isle Of Wight Literary festival here.

The Library Book – Susan Orlean (2019) – A Real-Life Review

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Here’s a non-fiction work I highlighted as one of the books I wanted to read in 2019 in January’s “Looking Back, Looking Forward” post. Susan Orleans is a writer for New Yorker magazine and has now published five books on disparate subjects, her most celebrated to date being “The Orchid Thief” about those obsessed with the acquisition of the delicate and often very valuable flowers. Here she turns her attention to the Los Angeles Public Library service and in doing so broadens her scope to explore the worldwide importance of libraries, in the past, present and future.

Her main location is the Los Angeles Central Library which, Orlean discovers early on in her research, suffered a devastating fire in 1986 which destroyed much of the building and over a million books not to mention stacks of non-book materials such as photos and microfilm. Orlean, a keen bibliophile, was astounded that an event of such magnitude passed her by and deviates from her plan to celebrate libraries by exploring this in detail and focusing on the young man believed to have deliberately started the fire. This gives the book an element of true crime running throughout it which alongside the more sedate world of the public library works really quite well.

It’s all interspersed in the text, the current administration of the library, the history of libraries in LA with its cast of very memorable characters and this strange and disturbing case of arson which almost definitely got out of hand within a building which was basically a tinderbox. Throughout is the emphasis on how important libraries are to people, past and present and this all (especially budget-cutting politicians) should take note of. A decade or so ago people worldwide were keen to predict the total demise of libraries in the wake of the e-book but this is no longer so as across the globe things are on the up. What might surprise the British reader is how well funded the American service is compared to the UK. There are more public libraries in the USA than there are branches of McDonalds (I wonder if the same applies over here where so many have been closed due to budgetary restrictions) and there are double the number of libraries to retail bookshops. These are just two of the facts I learnt from this book.

All of this celebratory pot-pourri is introduced within short chapters by lists of relevant books titles and their Dewey references which I initially felt gimmicky from a gifted writer but actually won me over as a nice touch which gives some idea where the author is going in each section. The book itself was inspired by Orlean’s memories of going to a public library with her mother when she was a child and them bonding over their piles of chosen books. This seems to me a valuable inspiration for a fascinating work. And as I am employed within public libraries I couldn’t agree more with the author as to their continued importance in the 21st Century.

fourstars

The Library Book was published as a hardback by Atlantic Books in 2019.

The Five- Hallie Rubenhold (2019) – A Real Life Review

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I like this author.  A previous work of hers “The Covent Garden Ladies” (2006) a study of Victorian prostitution ended up in my Top 5 Books Of The Year when I read it in 2011.  I very much applaud what she has set out to achieve with this new meticulously researched work but I would give her earlier publication the edge.

 “The Five” attempts to redress a wrong which has existed for 130 years- the public perception of the five women believed to have been killed by “Jack The Ripper”.  From the early press reports, to the way the case was handled, to the coroners’ reports and the development of the whole macabre industry which has built up around the perpetrator these women have been misrepresented.  They have become very much the foils to The Ripper’s dastardly crimes, their whole lives tainted by the sordidness of their demise.  They have been labelled “prostitutes” with an implication that they may have invited or deserved their fate.  Their individuality and humanity has been forgotten in the telling of a lurid tale.

 Through the sifting of contemporary reports, including the patchy coroners’ transcripts, newspapers and journals and the census returns which all provided a deluge of contradictory evidence Hallie Rubenhold has explored each of the five women in turn and tracked their lives to the point where they ended up, completely out of luck, in the Spitalfields area in 1888. 

 The most horrific thing which runs throughout is how the lives of the Victorian working classes were so on edge, one change of circumstance and a downward spiral was begun from which there was no escape.  This was especially true for women where the miseries of lost loves, dead children, loss of reputation etc. could lead to turning to drink and from then on there was little hope.  And, despite the odd bright moments in most of their lives this is what happened to Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly.

 The author has certainly achieved her aim in giving them a different place in The Ripper story and used the evidence well to bring them back to life.  The nature of the type of evidence she is using after 130 years of them being treated differently means that looking back after finishing the work I felt that individually they blurred into one another.  The author might not have found their voices individually but certainly as a group I very much felt their presence.  Little is actually known about the last victim Mary Jane Kelly, who lived her life enigmatically as many who became lost in Victorian London chose to do.  This is where non-fiction can let us down, lack of information leads to more generic non-specific writing thus affecting the narrative flow which a novelist would enjoy in bringing their work to conclusion.  I think this was why I wilted a little as a reader towards the end.

The character who is kept very firmly in the shadows throughout is Jack The Ripper himself, moving in only in the last few lines of each section.  I understand and applaud this but I don’t know as much about The Ripper Cases as the author assumes I do and by keeping the perpetrator so far in the background I feel I need to know more about what actually happened and how it was dealt with and to do this I’m likely to have to read one of the works Rubenhold is challenging.  But when I do I know I will have this author’s new perspective in mind and will not forget that these women existed and lived a valuable life before perishing in the London streets.

fourstars

 

The Five was published in hardback by Doubleday in February 2019.  It has this week been longlisted for the non-fiction dagger award from the Crime Writers’ Association.

Chickenfeed – Minette Walters (2006) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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One of the continuing aims of World Book Day/Night is to get reluctant readers immersed into the world of books.  Back in 2006 a set of “Quick Reads” were published in an initiative between publishing and other related industries.  Twelve popular authors were asked to produce short, fast-paced books to bring people back into reading and to encourage the emerging adult reader.  It was a highly successful enterprise which has been repeated in subsequent years.  Amongst this first batch of Quick Read authors were Val McDermid, John Francome, Ruth Rendell, Maeve Binchey and Minette Walters who was presented with the Readers’ Favourite Award for this short novel “Chickenfeed”.

I have read three earlier Walters novels, “The Breaker” (1998) which I really enjoyed, her 1993 breakthrough novel “The Sculptress” which I had more reservations about and “The Tinder Box” a novella from two years prior to “Chickenfeed”.  I’ve seen that book described as a “Chapbook”, I’m not sure what constitutes that in the 21st Century.

In “Chickenfeed” Walters fictionalises a real-life crime. It has a simple plot-line, understandably given its length and scope and much is given away in just a few lines on the back cover.  I like the surprise element of reading and often do not read back covers until I’ve finished the book and too big a reveal is the main reason why.

The murder took place in the 1920s on a chicken farm and it’s a tale of boy meets girl, girl has unrealistic expectations, boy wants to get rid of girl but she won’t take the hint- a universal life-lesson theme but here it ends in tragedy.

The most interesting and thought-provoking aspect can be found in the author’s notes at the back of the back where Walters doubts the established turn of events and gives a very valid reason why.  This challenges what has been assumed before and if I was a reader with limited recent experience of books I might just feel stimulated by this doubt raised and want to read more.  This book could very well be an entrée into crime fiction and true crime accounts.

By its very nature this is a slight book but well handled.  As I didn’t read the back cover I wasn’t sure how it was going to pan out or even who was going to be murdered.  I read it in under an hour, the largish clear print meant I could read it on the bus without my usual slightly nauseous feeling and it was certainly time well spent.  Just sometimes there’s a lot to be said for a “quick read”.

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Chickenfeed was published by Pan Books in 2006

The Wicked Boy – Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury 2016) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Subtitled “The Mystery of A Victorian Child Murderer” this is the first Kate Summerscale I have read since “Suspicions of Mr Whicher”.  I really enjoyed her examination of detective work in its infancy.  In that book the author took a case from 1860 and provided us with a leisurely trawl through the facts and all the relevant documents.  It was well-detailed and thoroughly researched and very readable.  Her latest book is just as good.

I began this book with no idea as to what was to happen.  It is 1895 and thirteen year old Robert Coombes and his twelve year old brother Nattie seem to be having a whale of a time- changing coins of large value, going off to Lords to see the cricket and going to the theatre.  These boys have a secret and a plan.  They tell neighbours that their mother is away and get a naive adult male friend of their fathers’s to come and stay with them.  The revelation of their secret is as much a shock to him as it is to the local Plaistow residents.

All three are initially arrested for the crime and its aftermath and the trial makes fascinating reading.  The press latch onto Robert’s treasured collection of “penny dreadful” comics and the simmering debate as to what is suitable material for children to read explodes.  I found this theme one of the most absorbing features of Summerscale’s analysis.

The book becomes a study of “suitable” punishment for a child.  Although it looks like the jury advocated clemency it actually made the punishment initially seem more severe but this is also a story of retribution and it is far from over at the end of the trial.

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Sketch of the Coombes brothers on trial

The adult lives of those who committed terrible crimes in childhood does hold a morbid fascination for me and in researching this Summerscale stumbled upon information which led her story into a completely different direction taking her to  some of the most notorious battlefields of the First World War.

The motive for Robert’s crime was never clear but so much else has been found out about him.  It is a sobering, grisly but ultimately quite life-enhancing tale.  I’m aware that by jumping to this book I’ve missed out a couple of Summerscale works, (“The Queen Of Whale Cay” and “Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace”) and normally I’m a great one for reading books in publication order but I was drawn to the author returning to murder and just couldn’t wait to read this.  I think she is excellent at bringing old crimes alive and at making her accounts of cases both highly readable and relevant to today.

fourstars

The Wicked Boy was published in April 2016 by Bloomsbury.    Thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Author Strikes Back – Carol Ann Lee Interview

 

A Murder They Wrote Special

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Today is the publication day for “The Murders At White House Farm”.  I originally reviewed this book last month thanks to a preview copy from Netgalley.  I am absolutely delighted to welcome Carol Ann Lee to take part in my second interview in my Author Strikes Back category.  I am especially happy about this because she has written,  as far as I am concerned, a five star book and as I mentioned in my last but one blog (100th Blog Post – A Review Retrospective) the review has been attracting considerable attention.  In fact, over the last couple of days it has eclipsed the competition to become my most read review.  This does look like it could be one of the big books of the year and so I am thrilled that Carol Ann Lee has found time to respond to my thoughts about the book.


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What was it about this particular case which drew you in?

I have very vivid memories of 1985, when I was sixteen, and clearly remember the case in the press – and even more so, the footage of the Bamber funerals on the television news. They were a popular and respected family in the area where they lived and it seemed incomprehensible that their lives had ended in such violence. Over the years, I read the books on the case, watched the documentaries and followed Jeremy Bamber’s campaign to be released through the Appeal Court. There was – for obvious reasons – a great deal said by and about Jeremy but little about the rest of the family. I was particularly drawn to Sheila, and also to June, and wanted to know more about the relationship between the two women. I also felt that it was important to sort the facts from the fiction that has appeared in the media over the years, to speak to those involved in the case, and to give an accurate and sympathetic portrait of the family members. To me, that was also the key to understanding – as far as such a horrific crime is ever possible to understand – what led to the murders.

What has been the response to those affected by the case to the book?

Well, none of them have the read the entire manuscript as yet, although I did send transcripts of the interviews I conducted to everyone who had agreed to speak to me. It’s such an emotive case and so much has been wrongly reported, that I wanted all those involved in the book to feel reassured that I would not misrepresent them. Reading through their transcripts also led to further discussion. Some of those interviewed only agreed to work with me on the understanding that they were not named in the book and of course I’ve kept to that. But I am very grateful to have been able to interview them and others who were willing to be named yet had not been interviewed before – for instance: Sheila’s psychiatrist, her best friend, the pathologist who worked on the case, and senior investigating officer Mike Ainsley.

I’m an infrequent (and slightly nervous) true crime reader.  What would you say are the essential books in this genre?

The ones which have impressed me most are:

Bernard Taylor’s Cruelly Murdered: Constance Kent and the Killing at Road Hill House, one of the first true crime books I read. Although Kate Summerscale’s book is brilliant in its own right, Cruelly Murdered remains in my memory most, particularly for the quality of the author’s research.

Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders. It has one of the most chillingly memorable opening lines imaginable and the rest follows on from there.

Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness: Love, Grief and a Journey into Japan’s Shadows. The story of Lucie Blackman’s murder is meticulously told, opening up a different and very frightening world to the reader.

Gitta Sereny’s two books on the Mary Bell case – particularly the second, Cries Unheard: the Story of Mary Bell – generated a great deal of controversy at the time of their publication, but make for uncomfortably compulsive reading.

My last two choices are not books themselves but sections within books: firstly, There’s Only One Yorkshire Ripper in Joan Smith’s Misogynies is acutely perceptive and genuinely gave me sleepless nights, and secondly, in Stet: An Editor’s Life, Diana Athill’s memories of meeting Myra Hindley with a view to assisting with her autobiography was also keenly insightful.

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Something I think you do very well is conveying a case of thirty years ago and really getting the sense of the summer of 1985.  In terms of policing and the handling of the case in the media how do you think things would be different if it took place today?

Thank you – I did want to imbue the book with a sense of place and time to make it more ‘immediate’ for readers. Sadly, I’m not convinced that Sheila would fare any better in the media today than thirty years ago, given the sort of graphic and salacious reporting in some (but by no means all) sections of the print and online press. Policing has changed though, partly in response to the Bamber case as is explained in the book, so the initial analysis would hopefully be more cautious than it was generally in 1985.

What’s next for Carol Ann Lee?

I’ve begun researching a book about a 1970s case that’s been with me since I was very young; it’s the first thing I ever remember reading about in a newspaper and is an almost unbelievable story of horror and heroism. It gripped the headlines for a very long time, and even changed the British legal system, yet there has never been a single book about it and the case is almost never mentioned, not even online. 

 

I would like to thank Carol Ann very much for her enthusiastic response to my questions and to remind you that “The Murders At White House Farm” is now available to buy as a hardback of as a Kindle edition by following the link to Amazon.co.uk.  It can also be purchased from the publishers’ website.  The links should take you directly to the book. The hardback is published by Sidgwick and Jackson.  I would also like to thank Laura at PanMacmillan for her help in linking me up with Carol Ann.

PanMacmillan Publisher’s Site

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More about Carol Ann Lee

Yorkshire born Carol Ann grew up in Cornwall.  She became fascinated by the life of Anne Frank and was instrumental in getting an Anne Frank exhibition to Truro Cathedral.  This led to a research grant from the Prince’s Trust to interview surviving friends and family of Anne Frank and the publication of her first book “Roses From The Earth: The Biography of Anne Frank” in 1999.  A tremendously well received book this led to two others about the Frank family – “The Hidden Life Of Otto Frank”(2002), “A Friend Called Anne (co-written with Anne’s best friend Jacqueline van Maarsen) and two children’s books “Anne Frank’s Story” and “Anne Frank and the Children of the Holocaust”.   She has written two novels, very well received in Europe – Her novel set during the First World War “The Winter Of The World” was shortlisted for two major French literary awards.  Her fascination with British crime has led to publications on the Myra Hindley and Moors Murder case, “One of Your Own: The Life and Death of Myra Hindley” (2010) and “Evil Relations”, a collaboration with David Smith, a main prosecution witness in the case.  Carol Ann’s 2012 publication of “A Fine Day for a Hanging”a study of the Ruth Ellis case saw her being given access to previously unavailable material.  Carol Ann’s true crime books have been shortlisted for the CWA Non-Fiction Dagger, Britain’s leading award for crime non-fiction.  This could very well be the year she wins this award for “The Murders At White House Farm.”

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Carol-Ann Lee’s previous publications are available from amazon.co.uk

My original review of “The Murders At White House Farm” can be found here

 

 

The Murders At White House Farm – Carol Ann Lee (2015) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Warning: This book gave me nightmares. I don’t read a lot of true crime as I tend to get too involved in what is being unfolded and there’s a thin line between being interested as a reader and feeling like a vulture picking over the pieces of the miseries of other lives. For a long time I felt very damaged by my reading of “Killing For Company”, Brian Masters’ seminal book on Muswell Hill serial murderer Dennis Nilsen. Other books in this field have rightly become classic reads. Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” (1966) was a game-changer as the author became obsessed by the crime he was recording and by its perpetrators. Kate Summerscale’s “Suspicions of Mr Whicher” (2008) brought a case from 1860 back into the limelight with meticulous research. Carol Ann Lee began her non-fiction publications with a number of books on Anne Frank but her writing has taken a much darker turn of late with works on Myra Hindley and Ruth Ellis. Here she moves more up to date with a case which exploded across the tabloids and shocked a nation in 1985, the murder of the Bamber Family at White House Farm, Tolleshunt D’Arcy, Essex. Although some may question why this case is being raked up yet again to cause more heartbreak Lee may very well have produced another classic in the true crime genre.

In August 1985 Police discovered a killing spree at the farm which had left grandparents June and Nevill Bamber, their daughter Sheila and her six year old twin boys dead from multiple gunshot wounds. The original belief was that Sheila, (who became emblazoned in the press as “Bambi”), who had suffered from serious mental health issues had murdered her parents and children and then committed suicide. It was, however, her brother Jeremy Bamber who was convicted of the crime.

I cannot say I enjoyed reading this book but I did find it compulsive and it remained with me even when I wasn’t reading it (hence the nightmares). The research is painstaking as Lee thoroughly examines the circumstances leading to the slaughter, the initial assumptions made by the police and the reinterpretation of evidence which led to Jeremy’s conviction. A phone call from Jeremy’s father at the time of the killing and a gun silencer seem to be the key points here.

I think Lee has produced a balanced, thorough examination of the case. Bamber has spent 30 years in prison and his insistence of his innocence and the campaign for his release is one of the longest running and most supported this country has known. Lee has tended to steer clear of this but I stumbled across Bamber’s campaign website on which there is a 34 question quiz to separate “fact from fiction”- even with the knowledge gained by reading this book I still only scored 50%, probably because this perception of events is different from the author’s.

It’ s easy to forget how different the Britain of thirty years ago was in terms of attitudes, policing, detection work, the press and media and this is skilfully recreated. I think this is an important book in the true crime canon but the general reader must be prepared to have the events of White House Farm remain with them for some time.

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“The Murders At White House Farm” is published July 2015 by Pan Macmillan/Sidgwick and Jackson. Thanks to Netgalley for providing this copy for review

As a result of this review an interview with Carol Ann Lee was arranged for my Author Strikes Back Thread. This interview can be found here with direct links to purchase the book.