Monday, 15 August 2016

The A-Z of Victorian Crime

The A-Z of Victorian Crime is a newly published (by Amberley) book compiled by four historians of crime - Neil R.A. Bell, Trevor N. Bond, Kate Clarke, and M.W. Oldridge. The field of Victorian crime is immense, and in their introduction, the authors explain how and why they have focused on certain subject areas rather than others. As ever with a book of this kind, it's well worth reading that intro before one starts to dip in to the detailed entries. For example, Thomas Wainewright misses out because his crimes occurred before Victoria came to the throne, though his trial took place at the start of her long reign.

I think that the overwhelming majority of readers will indeed treat this as a book to dip into, a point of first reference, rather than as a volume to be read from cover to cover at one or more sittings. I approached it in that way, and started by looking up cases with which I was familiar - examples including Christiana Edmunds and Florence Maybrick. The entries I consulted struck me as put together very competently. The challenge for the writer is always: what do I leave out? My feeling is that the approach to the necessary selectivity is perfectly sound. The same is true of the suggestions for further reading, though I felt these could usefully have been expanded somewhat without adding too much to the overall length of the book.

The real pleasure of such a book, however, in my opinion lies in chancing upon stories and pieces of information with which one was previously unfamiliar. I'd never heard of Percy Lefroy Mapleton, for example, or of Celestina Sommer or of Mary Ann Britland. Many of the entries deal with murder cases, but there are also, for instance, entries covering hangmen and police officers. Several of the entries are written with a touch of dry humour which also works pretty well.

All in all, this book makes a useful and very readable addition to the library of any true crime fan. By its nature, it offers a jumping-off point for discovery; anyone wishing to get to know the cases in depth will need to do quite a bit of further research (which is why I'd have favoured more clues about further reading). But I suspect it will also find a market among general readers who wish to know more about Victorian crime without becoming bogged down by minutiae.

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