Sean O’Connor’s meticulously researched account of the murder and trial, the lurid scandal and repercussive aftermath is superbly evocative and gripping. But this is not a whodunnit, nor even a why-dunnit. Instead, it’s a book riven with intelligent and compassionate ambiguity. The killer was an 18-year-old boy, the lover of the victim’s wife, Alma. But this is where rationality slips into elusive darkness; and O’Connor dives deep into the most extraordinary psychological mysteries, while also expertly evoking the songs and the escapism, the cars, shops, hotels and trains that filled the landscape of 1930s Britain... In sensitive and affecting prose, O’Connor tells a story not just of murder but of the social and sexual limitations of the time, against which imaginative men and women could not help but push.
Alma may have been acquitted of murder, but she had been damned in the court of public opinion. In those sanctimonious days there was no hope of starting anew. The book ends on a note of finely conveyed tragedy. After all, once the mallets have been cleaned off and the post mortems performed, that must be the primary justification for books on middle-class murder.
The Rattenbury love triangle is a gift of a story. It has violence, sexual jealousy, drugs, alcoholism, celebrity, misogyny, people caught in the riptides of desire, profligacy and stupidity. A lot of stupidity. A defence lawyer for Stoner called it “the clumsiest crime that could possibly be imagined”...However much O’Connor tries to gussy it all up with social analysis, he can’t get away from the fact that the appeal of the Rattenbury case is primarily voyeuristic. There is the chilling moment when the judge puts on the square of black cloth that signifies a sentence of death. Yet what lingers in the mind is not the burning injustice but the harrowing comedy: the false teeth and the crêpe de Chine pyjamas.