Claire Harman doesn’t claim to have unearthed an unknown Victorian murder mystery (she includes an extensive bibliography). And since the case was quickly solved and put to bed, her narrative lacks the twists and turns of Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. But she tells the story with clarity and vigour...
Claire Harman’s fascinating Murder by the Book is not a forensic whodunit... The most entertaining part of Harman’s book is not the attempts to guess the murderer’s motives; it is her vivid sketch of a precise moment... Harman’s tale is never less than rip-roaring, but as the final curtain came down, I was left thinking of Sarah Mancer, Russell’s maid... She is only a small part of this story, but her life, and those of other luckless servants like her, deserve a book of their own.
Claire Harman sketches out this background in vivid and punchy prose, although in such a slim book she tends to skip over material that might complicate the main story. For example, she doesn’t dwell on the fact that the scandal over Jack Sheppard was part of a much wider Victorian debate over whether bad books really did encourage bad behaviour. Nor does she draw parallels with more recent debates over video nasties, where many of the same questions recur concerning whether the line between fiction and real life is a barrier or something more like a trail of breadcrumbs... Where Harman does strike a chord with modern readers is her suggestion that Courvoisier’s chief concern after his arrest wasn’t whether or not he would be found guilty, but his own growing fame. Not only did he make an official deathbed confession, he repeatedly edited and added to it like a little novel in which he was both the author and the hero.
The guilty man – Claire Harman’s fascinating short book shows that his guilt was beyond dispute – was François Courvoisier, a 25-year-old Swiss valet... Harman offers a vivid slice of social history in her account of Courvoisier’s trial and death... But where her book really excels is in its presentation of the pushy, seedily competitive world of the Newgate novelists, among whom Ainsworth and Dickens were leading figures. Good looks helped Ainsworth to find patrons, but he was a stirring storyteller too (I feasted on his novels as a child). One question remains frustratingly unaddressed in this intriguing, well-researched and elegantly presented book. Why did Harman write it? Does she have a personal view about the possible influence of popular culture upon crime? Stopping just short of indicating whether she herself believes Courvoisier’s assertion, the author leaves us in the dark.
The murder of Lord William Russell in 1840 was a national scandal, sending a wave of hysteria across London: a member of the landed classes murdered in his bed with a cut to the throat that had almost severed his head. When Russell’s valet, François Courvoisier, was arrested, the evidence seemed weak until police began to investigate Courvoisier’s obsession with sensational true-crime stories, which had recently become readily and cheaply available. Harman’s meticulous research places the murder within the literary context of the day, from Dickens’s fascination with true crime to Thackeray’s repudiation of it. The result is a fascinating portrait of Victorian London amid the rising popularity of the novel.
In Murder by the Book Claire Harman recounts this grisly tale, but she also puts it in context. Harman gives a fascinating account of the rise during the previous decade of the “Newgate novels”, sensational crime books aimed at the newly literate working class. This new readership was propelled by the proliferation of publishers such as Richard Bentley (the man who produced the first mass-market editions of Jane Austen), who took advantage of cheaper printing and distribution methods. Harman makes the point that although novels were still too expensive for the labouring classes to buy, they were widely available in circulating libraries.
Harman paints a vivid picture of London in thrall to the Jack Sheppard phenomenon, in particular a sell-out stage adaptation at the Adelphi over the winter of 1839-40. Lord William’s killer confessed that he had both read the book and seen the show, and at his trial described the murder in almost the exact words used in the slashing scene in Ainsworth’s novel... Among the many threads of this remarkable story which Harman draws so skilfully together is the fascination for both Jack Sheppard and the Russell case shown by the young writers Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray... Harman’s book, just a galloping 170 pages, is a brilliant piece of literary detective work. And though she is never so crass as to draw comparisons with today’s concerns over the effects of drill music or chic TV assassins (Killing Eve’s Villanelle?), the resonances ping from every page.