Friday, 23 October 2015

Forgotten Book - Henbane

Henbane, by Catherine Meadows, published in the US as Doctor Moon, is a long-forgotten book dating from 1934, which I have wanted to track down for ages. There were two reasons for my curiosity. First, it's a fictionalisation of the Crippen case, which has fascinated me for decades. Having been responsible for my own take on Crippen in Dancing for the Hangman, I'm always keen to see what other writers make of the story. Second, Dorothy L. Sayers lavished praise on the book in one of her reviews for the Sunday Times, and she was no mean judge.

I wasn't disappointed. This is a very readable and capably written novel, and it's all the more surprising that Meadows, so far as I know, published only one other novel. That was Friday Market,another book inspired by a real life crime, namely the Armstrong case. I do wonder if Meadows was a pen-name for someone else,but I've  not found any evidence of this. If anyone knows the answer,or has more information about the mysterious Ms Meadows, I'd be glad to learn it.

Meadows sticks fairly closely to the established facts of the Crippen case,but makes some amendments - more, I think, than Sayers realised. Caspar Moon, who stands in for Crippen, is very sympathetically presented, and so too is his secretary and lover, based on Ethel Le Neve. It follows that his wife Cora (called Flora in the novel) is presented vividly but negatively, as a man-chasing and utterly selfish domestic tyrant. Sayers said: "the book is not merely a costume-piece, still less a study in morbid psychology; it is a fine novel of human passion and suffering."

I haven't kept a statistical record, but it's my very strong impression that the Crippen case is referenced more frequently in Golden Age fiction than any other real life case - including such notable cases as Maybrick and Wallace. The story was sensational in its day, and remains absolutely full of interest - so much so that I enjoyed writing Dancing for the Hangman as much as any other novel I've ever written. As with Maybrick and Wallace, there 's room to debate what actually happened. I don't go along with the theory advanced a few years ago,based on claims relating to DNA, that Crippen's wife survived, and I think it very likely (as, I believe, did Agatha Christie) that Ethel was not quite the dewy-eyed innocent portrayed by Meadows. But Meadows' story, though told at a pace that is very leisurely by today's standards, remains enjoyable, and it's baffling that a writer of such accomplishment should have vanished seemingly without trace. .  


Ted said...

American readers will have an easier time finding this book under the title of 'Doctor Moon'.

Martin Edwards said...

Good point, Ted. I'll amend the post to mention this.

aguja said...

Love your reviews, which come thick and fast. I shall look back on them when I return from holiday. In the meantime, I have just sent for (and received in time!) two of your books - the Christmas selection of stories and 'The Dungeon House. These should keep both my husband and I occupied for a lazy week or two.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks so much, Aguja, and I hope you both enjoy them.