It’s a Mystery:  “Only one link in the chain of destiny can be handled at a time”

It's a Mystery Irma Heldman.jpg

This thoroughly engrossing tale of true crime begins with a grisly murder in London on May 6, 1840. Lord William Russell was found dead in his bed at his home on Norfolk Street in Mayfair, his throat so savagely cut that his head was almost severed. According to reports of the day, Londoners were shocked to learn of the macabre killing of an unobtrusive minor aristocrat in an upscale neighborhood. And Londoners in the Victorian London of Dickens were not easily shocked. As he wrote in Barnaby Rudge, one of two of his novels to be serialized in his short-lived (1840-1841) weekly Master Humphrey’s Clock and largely set during the Gordon Riots of 1780:

He [Barnaby] was beset by a crowd of unruly Londoners as part of the very scum and refuse of London, whose growth was fostered by bad criminal laws, bad prison regulations, and the worst conceivable police.

It is probably worth noting that Barnaby, save the very apt quote, is one of Dickens’ less esteemed novels. The other novel serialized at the time was The Old Curiosity Shop, which fared far better.

The crime occurred during wildly tempestuous times in what was the largest city in the world. New docks supporting the city’s place as the world’s trade center were being built in the east.  The coming of the railroad in the 1830’s displaced thousands and accelerated the expansion of the city. The price of this explosive growth was untold squalor and filth. The homes of the upper and middle class existed in close proximity to areas of unbelievable poverty. Street sweepers attempted to keep the streets clean of manure, the result of thousands of horse-drawn vehicles. The city’s ubiquitous chimney pots belched coal smoke, resulting in soot which seemed to settle everywhere. In many parts of the city raw sewage flowed in gutters that emptied into the Thames. Street vendors hawking their wares added to the cacophony of street noises. Pick-pockets, prostitutes, drunks, beggars and vagabonds of every description were a large part of the increased congestion.

At first, the motive for the murder appeared to be robbery, albeit a bungled one. The drawing room of Lord William’s house had been turned upside down. Piles of valuables were strewn about near the front door. More likely, since the evidence of theft was uncertain, there was fear among the affluent that the murder may have been motivated by the hatred of the privileged by the so-called lower classes. The crime became the talk of the town, gripping Londoners from all walks of life, including Dickens who was a neighbor of Lord Russell. Both he and William Makepeace Thackeray were among the prominent literati who were in the thrall of the crime.

Eventually, the police focused on Lord Russell’s valet, Courvoisier—yes, like the brandy. When he finally confessed, he cited a commercially popular novel, Jack Sheppard by William Harrison Ainsworth, as his inspiration. It’s the saga of an unrepentant thief who cunningly escaped justice repeatedly  by making a series of spectacular, seemingly impossible, prison breaks. It was a so-called “Newgate novel” that glamorized vice and made heroes of villains—in this case, a dastardly housebreaker.  One infamous scene involved a slit throat and a botched burglary. Plus, it was soon revealed that Courvoisier was a great fan of the play version, which had various productions around the city. Performances of Jack Sheppard at the major theatres were packed. As author Harman recounts:

Almost as soon as the story was on the stage, the term “a Jack Sheppard” began to be used freely in the press to refer to any ingenious housebreaker or nimble-witted young criminal. A ruffian who had stolen from his own father was called “A Young Jack Sheppard”; three boys aged ten, eleven and twelve appearing before the Central Criminal Court, who had cut the glass of a toy-shop window to steal toy cannons from it, were called “Juvenile Jack Sheppards” (they got one- and to-month prison sentences); and two other ten-year-old “Jack Sheppards” were said to have displayed alarming “cunning and hardihood” when stealing from a snuff shop in Tower Hill…. The power of the story to rouse such youths was astonishing; it really seemed to speak to a whole class and generation of young people (specifically boys) who had not previously found much in the culture that reflected their own lives and concerns.

As Harman takes us through the many twists and turns of the case, she focuses on the appeal of fictional depictions of violent crime and criminals. She explores the harmful influence of such fiction on the mind of the reader. And she illuminates the powerful appeal of the lurid “felon literature” and its dangerous consequences.

While exploring concerns in Murder by the Book about the glorification of criminals in the fiction of the day, the author addresses some lingering mysteries. Did Courvoisier have an accomplice? Was Lord William already dead when his throat was slit? (Apparently, the Judge in the case thought “nothing turned on” information about the state of the corpse and curtailed further speculation about how the crime was committed.) And why was the single bloody handprint left on Lord Russell’s bedsheets ignored? (The idea of fingerprint identification didn’t emerge until the 1890’s.) And given the nature of the crime, why wasn’t there more blood? Why did the valet, Courvoisier, not flee the scene? What dark secret lay behind the killing?

Harman’s exploration of Dickens’ interest in the case, reaction to the book Jack Sheppard, and horrified account of the hanging, which he witnessed, add depth to this assiduously researched and splendidly written book. In the end she reminds us that truth is often stranger than fiction, particularly when inspired by it. Indeed!

—Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.