Saturday, 22 June 2013

Bad Companions by Kate Clarke

Bad Companions, written by Kate Clarke, and published by The History Press, is a collection of six long essays about true crime cases with a common theme - the killers were all women, and the crimes were all based in London. Kate is a highly experienced true crime writer, and this book displays her usual sound research and readable literary style.

I'd heard of a couple of the cases, but most were new to me. They are a varied bunch, and the result is a fascinating book that gives the reader an insight into a different world, when you might be hanged for various crimes less than murder. And the first killer discussed in the book, Catherine Hayes, was burned at the stake. Her crime was "petty treason" - that is, the murder of her husband. I don't approve of wives murdering their husbands, for all kinds of good and obvious reasons, but the punishment was not only horrific but also a spectacle feasted upon by eighteenth century ghouls.

Catherine, with the help of two men friends, had her dead husband's head cut off, and a number of equally scary crimes are described. But Kate Clarke avoids the sensationalism that mars some true crime writing, and her account of Kate Webster's murder of her elderly employer, whose body she then proceeded to mutilate, burn and boil, gains in strength because much of it is taken from Webster's own words -when, facing execution, she finally made a clean breast of things.

Among the other cases, Eliza Fanning's conviction for poisoning some dumplings seems very much like a miscarriage of justice. And that's another problem with the death penalty - there's no putting right miscarriages after a wrongly convicted person has been executed. The brutality of Elizabeth Brownrigg towards her female servants, culminating in a vicious murder, is also very striking. Bad Companions shines a light on bygone times which were fascinating but frightening. Reading this excellent book makes one very glad to be living in the twenty-first century.


Doug Greene said...

This is a book I shall have to read. The Golden Agers were fascinated by True Crime -- and the Hodge British Trials series provided a number of plots. I am now gathering material for an edition of the complete Solange stories by F. Tennyson Jesse, and have read her introductions to 5 or 6 of the Hodge volumes. Very sympathetic, especially to female sexuality in the Madeleine Smith and Rattenbury/Stoner cases.

Martin Edwards said...

You're absolutely right, Doug. True crime stories feature constantly in the books of Carr, Bekkeley and co. Fascinated to hear that you are working on Jesse's output - she was a very interesting person as well as a talented writer. I imagine you've read 'Portrait of Fryn'?

Doug Greene said...

"Portrait of Fryn" is a valuable but frustrating biography. Lots of facts but almost no analysis of them. We learn that Fryn was fascinating, but not why. We learn that she was interested in murder, but not what that says about her. Fryn was a fine writer but a tortured person -- but what tortured her?