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A fascinating collection of gory stories
Aside from Jack the Ripper, grisly murders don’t usually spring to mind when we think of the Victorian era, but hundreds of downright horrible crimes regularly hit the headlines at the time. While most of these have sunk without trace, Michelle Morgan has delved into dozens of long-forgotten murders, mysteries, kidnappings, disappearances and good-old-fashioned sex-scandals to paint an enthralling picture of crime in the days of old Queen Vicky.
As well as a whole bunch of murders and throat-slashing jilted lovers, there are a surprising number of accounts centred on that well-known source of killers - the stage actor. One of the most intriguing is the story of popular thespian William Terriss and his (somewhat unhinged) fellow actor Richard Prince, who stabbed the former to death at the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre.
The inclination of a lot of killers to cut their victim’s throats left me feeling a bit woozy at times, and the sheer number of people who inflicted horrifying pain upon their victims (who, shortly before, they had intended marrying) is mind-boggling. It certainly puts twenty-first century domestic abuse statistics into perspective.
I did occasionally feel the text might have benefited from another good edit, but otherwise Ms Morgan tells a good tale. All in all, a fascinating collection of gory stories (and I do mean gory!)
A stonking good yarn
Six years after investigator Sid Halley’s retirement, a request from racing authority chairman Sir Richard Stewart looks like pushing Sid back into the sleuthing game. But the former jockey-turned-detective has no desire to revive a line of work that got him shot, beaten up and thrown in the path of danger on a regular basis. With his wife and daughter to think about, Sid makes it clear he’s not interested in checking out a series of dodgy races. But when Sir Richard turns up dead, Sid may have to reconsider, and that’s before a mysterious Irishman starts making threatening phone calls.
After co-authoring a few books with Francis senior, Dick’s son Felix took up his father’s mantle in 2011 with his first novel ‘Gamble’. This is the fourth (of eight) and is also the fifth book featuring Sid Halley.
Years ago, I had a Dick Francis novel that sat on my bookshelf untouched for months, purely because I thought a book centred around horseracing wouldn’t interest me. So it was pure chance that I happened across ‘Refusal’ on Amazon while perusing something completely different. Though the first few pages intrigued me, I still wasn’t certain it was my cup of jockey’s tea, so opting for the audiobook version, I allowed the marvellous Martin Jarvis to garner my interest.
‘Refusal’ is a stonking good yarn that gives its hero plenty to keep him busy. With murder, kidnapping and arson on the agenda, the poor man is thrown from one impossible situation into another, with a villainous Irishman hovering over his shoulder at every turn. The plot spirals into a thrilling denouement where Halley’s future, and that of his family, could easily go up in flames.
Some knowledge of horseracing and betting might clarify the plot, but for a novice like me, these details are clearly explained by the author without over-egging the steeplechase custard. A great story with that’ll appeal to anyone who loves a mystery.
An exciting and thoroughly absorbing tale
In February 2006, an unlikely gang of would-be villains stole £53 million from a cash warehouse in Tonbridge, Kent. Rocketing the caper into the annals of British crimes such as the Great Train Robbery, the theft was audacious in its premise and, at times, positively farcical in its execution.
Subtitled ‘The True Story of the World's Biggest Cash Robbery’ this book tells the tale of a bunch of villains who planned to rob a Securitas cash depot in the early hours of 22nd of February 2006. Charting the whole scheme from conception to the capture of the gang, journalist Howard Sounes tells a thrilling and highly-researched story that is captivating in its attention to detail. Describing the lives of gang members, including wrestler Lee Murray and his pal Paul Allen, the author explores every aspect of the crime and how each of the gang played their respective roles. It’s also interesting that on those occasions when the facts are not clear, he does not resort to imagination, but simply points out the possible options and the most likely explanation.
This is an exciting and thoroughly absorbing account of one of the biggest robberies in the world, and will thrill anyone who enjoys true-crime stories.
A thought-provoking case
When a man turns up at a police station on Christmas Day saying he has buried a corpse, police are led to a naked body dumped in a frozen snowbank. Claiming that he and his fiancé, Barbara Hoffman, discovered the stranger in her apartment, Jerry Davies insists they know nothing about the dead man. However, when police begin their investigation, they uncover a tale of deception, insurance fraud and cyanide poisoning.
In any true-crime story, we expect certain things: references to police reports, official documents and personal letters, as well as actual evidence that backs up the author’s point of view. This is not one of those books. In a note at the beginning of the paperback version, Karl Harter says this book is the result of ‘extensive research and scores of interviews’. He also records how he has ‘dramatically emphasised’ some scenes. Well, that is certainly true, for Harter ignores the usual set-up and instead goes off at a tangent at regular intervals, imagining what certain people are thinking about, looking at, or doing with their hands. He also spends a lot of time relating intimate details of Hoffman’s sexual encounters, which seems inappropriate at the very least.
Maybe I’m just being picky but reading about real events is only interesting when we are given the facts rather than imagined scenarios. In ‘Winter of Frozen Dreams’ I’m left with the feeling that the author’s writing style would have worked better in a novel. Of course, this is only my opinion and I may well be doing him a disservice, and to be fair, the last section of the book which details the eventual court case, is positively riveting. But all in all, this is an interesting and thought-provoking case that could have been expressed far more effectively.
Classic rags-to-riches tale
Brought up in the workhouse, orphan Oliver escapes to London and finds himself caught in Fagin’s criminal underworld.
Everyone knows the basic plot of this classic tale, but I was surprised to learn how much of it was new to me. It turns out that the many film and TV versions rarely do justice to the full story as the author intended, so the second half of the story is often left out. I’ve had ‘Oliver Twist’ on my bookshelf for about thirty years but have never managed to get past the first chapter. Finding the weighty tome available as an audiobook, I jumped at the chance to listen rather than read. The lovely Martin Jarvis brings the text to life with a marvellous variety of voices and accents, and even succeeds in making those passages where Dickens goes off on a tangent about life in general appealing to the listener.
Given that I also have ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and ‘Great Expectations’ gathering dust on my bookshelves, I think audio versions of these two will soon be on my listening agenda.
Not for the faint-hearted
True crime writer Ann Rule tells the story of the Green River killer in this extraordinary book. Researching the case for more than twenty years, she later discovered the perpetrator had carried out many of his grisly crimes close to where she lived and had even attended her book signings. America’s most prolific serial killer is known to have murdered at least 49 women and evaded detection until he was caught in 2001. The author sifted through thousands of documents, police records and photographs to bring this harrowing tale to life, detailing the lives of the many victims, their stories and their deaths.
This is not a book for the faint-hearted – packed with gory details and scene-of-crime minutiae, Rule outlines how the police investigation team went through many permutations before they eventually apprehended the killer. At a time when DNA evidence was virtually unheard of, the Green River Task Force struggled to find links that might tie any of the victims to a particular person. Fighting the quirks and whims of political enthusiasm for the case, the detectives were often left with only a skeleton crew, and some members even followed up leads in their spare time.
This is a disturbing story of an apparently mild-mannered but deeply troubled individual and the trail of bodies he left across King County, Washington.
Fascinating account of the infamous killer
Comprehensive examination of the life and career of America's first serial killer, using contemporary letters, documents, court records and newspaper articles. The book traces the infamous Holmes through several marriages, medical experiments and early attempts at insurance fraud, to the many individuals he may and may not have murdered.
Adam Selzer leaves no corpse unturned in this fascinating account of evil doctor HH Holmes. The details are at times gory, and include particulars of the deaths of several children, which some listeners may find upsetting. The author also has a tendency to repeat himself a little, though as the text runs to a smidgen under five hundred pages, it was useful to be reminded of earlier events and misdemeanours as the story came to its conclusion.
Selzer paints a thought-provoking portrait of Holmes, showing the many and varied versions of himself played out by the killer over the span of a relatively short life. While he was plainly a crafty individual, Holmes does not fit the usual criteria of serial killer and may have simply knocked off people who got in the way of his plans, rather than killing from a psychological or sadistic motivation. Nevertheless, some of his victims – such as the slaughter of several members of the Pitezel family – demonstrate a distinct lack of feeling for his fellow human beings.
A fascinating and well-researched book that will no-doubt sell in shed-loads when the forthcoming Martin Scorsese/Leo DiCaprio movie (The Devil in the White City) is released.
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Classic Agatha Christie mystery
When a young woman recounts a series of apparent mishaps, Hercule Poirot, holidaying in Cornwall, is intrigued. Along with his friend Hastings, he sets out to investigate what he believes to be a threat to the woman’s life. But how do you solve a murder that hasn’t been committed?
I read a great many Agatha Christie novels in my teenage years, but the plots of most of them have vanished from my memory, so it may be that I’ve read this one before. First published in 1932, this is the sixth of the Poirot books and features Captain Hastings and Chief Inspector Japp, who add to the fun.
My memories of Christie’s writing are tarred with the idea that I stopped reading her books due to boredom (with plots, characters etc), so I wasn’t expecting too much with this one. As it turns out, I was pleasantly surprised. The writing is generally clever and witty (especially Poirot’s dialogue) and, though I did get a bit confused towards the end, it was an entertaining story that kept me guessing.
The audiobook is read by the lovely Hugh Fraser, who brings out the humour of Christie’s writing (and also played Hastings in 43 episodes the Poirot TV series).
A clever and witty story
London, 1587. A new play entitled Tamburlaine opens at the Rose Theatre, but when a member of the audience is murdered, young actor Will Shakespeare is the prime suspect and is thrown into jail. Playwright and part-time spy, Kit Marlowe, knows his friend is innocent and sets out to investigate. But when another body turns up, it seems the mystery is not a simple one.
This is the first time I’ve delved into MJ Trow’s massive oeuvre, which includes several book series (Lestrade, Maxwell, Marlowe etc). In this adventure, he spins an absorbing tale of murder, spies and money-lending. Having said that, while he paints a generally authentic picture of the times, the people and the minutiae of everyday life, his use of more modern language and modern expressions did occasionally jar with me.
For lovers of truly historic murder mysteries, it’s a clever and witty story that adds yet more layers to the legend that was Christopher Marlowe.
Classic science fiction
One of the earliest works of science fiction, Jules Verne creates a fantastical subterranean world in this classic adventure. Along with his nephew Axel and Danish eiderdown hunter, Hans, eccentric Professor Lidenbrock, charts a course to the planet's core, with only the occasional clue left by sixteenth-century explorer Arne Saknussemm to guide him.
The audiobook is narrated by that master of silver-tonguery, Tim Curry, whose variety of accents are by turns hilarious and impressive. The language does occasionally get a little over-technical, particularly when the Professor is explaining his theories, but otherwise it’s a rollicking good tale that shows off Verne’s fantastic imagination (the book was first published in 1864).
Classic sci-fi at its best.
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