I downloaded this book to my kindle to read while away, I had thought it would prove an engrossing holiday read and help boost my non-fiction reading which has been fairly dismal this year. I have only read a couple of PD James’s novels and I believe this has been her only true crime book thus far.
Using what records that remain P D James and T A Critchley attempt to re-create the sensational case of the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811. Needless to say after such a passage of time – not all records do still exist ( or should I say existed in 1971) and so although this is a readable book which does go some way to exploring the infamous crimes and the various people caught up in it and particularly those suspected, it is certainly not without fault. With so many primary sources missing, the authors, had to fall back on atmospheric descriptions of the area of London, which is much changed today, and in this, the reader can see the hand of an experienced fiction writer. There are however long excerpts from newspapers and witness statements and other public records which do help to bring these dark and violent times to life. The book is just as much a social history of the London docks and inadequate policing system as it is the story of two dreadful murders. The authors do manage to bring the seething docklands to life, with it’s numerous public houses, sailors and night watchmen. They also highlight the dreadful inadequacies of the policing system. There was at this time no formal police force, a system of magistrates and their few police officers and elderly night watchmen were all that lay between the public and terrible violent assailants like that of the Ratcliffe Highway murderer. In conducting such a high profile investigation these public servants were hampered by having no system to work to, there was no pooling of information, and many mistakes were made. Certain prejudices were brought in to play allowing suspicion to fall immediately upon those of Irish or Portuguese descent.
John Williams a sailor lodging at the Pear Tree soon comes under suspicion and is arrested and charged, but apparently kills himself in prison. P D James and T A Critchley then set out their own theories in the matter of John Williams possible guilt or innocence. Some of their theories I found perfectly plausible, others rather less so, one theory in particular, for me strayed a little too far into the realms of invention – that John William’s suicide could have been homicide!
Overall this was a diverting read, there a few slightly duller moments – but I do sometimes struggle to enjoy non-fiction.