I have been going through a mini crime phase in my reading across different genres recently, namely non-fiction, crime fiction and historical fiction. Here are three books I have enjoyed over the last few weeks:
Court Number One by Thomas Grant is an anthology of 11 significant trials held at the Central Criminal Court in London, more commonly known as the Old Bailey, during the 20th century. The majority of these deal with murders, but also include espionage and treason, and as the subtitle of the book promises, Grant shows how the trials defined modern Britain, particularly where attitudes towards social change are concerned. The earlier chapters tend to involve cases which have largely been forgotten such as the Camden Town murder trial in 1907 shortly after the court opened, while those in the second half of the century mostly remain notorious such as those involving John Christie, Ruth Ellis and Jeremy Thorpe. While some chapters are a tad overlong due to the considerable amount of detail, each case is outlined in a gripping narrative, capturing the essence of courtroom drama. Grant, a practising barrister, shines a light on the tactics involved and how and why the trials had the outcomes that they did. ‘Court Number One’ is ideal for a lay reader who wants to understand more about the history of the English criminal justice system, and would be a good companion to The Secret Barrister.
The Mermaids Singing by Val McDermid is the first volume in the Scottish author’s popular crime fiction series featuring forensic psychologist Dr Tony Hill and Detective Carol Jordan. Hill and Jordan’s different areas of expertise complement each other well in their first case together in which four mutilated bodies have been discovered in the Temple Fields area of the fictional city of Bradfield where several gay bars are located. While Jordan looks at the evidence left at the scene as part of standard police procedure, Hill tends to make deductions based on what is absent in order to come up with a detailed psychological profile of the psychopath’s background, actions and motives. The chapters are interspersed with diary entries written by the murderer which go into particularly grisly detail where medieval torture devices are concerned. First published in 1995, some of the dialogue would be considered rather clichéd for a detective novel these days, but it’s a compelling introduction to one of the most enduring crime fiction series in recent decades.
Things In Jars by Jess Kidd is the Irish author’s first foray into historical fiction set in the 1860s and tells the story of Bridie Devine, a female detective investigating the disappearance of Christabel Berwick, the young daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick who has been kept secret from the world. It later transpires that Christabel’s kidnapping may be linked to the discovery of two bodies near the crypt of Highgate Chapel. There are fantasy elements to the story too and the eclectic cast of characters includes the ghost of a champion boxer, Ruby Doyle, and a seven-foot-tall housemaid, Cora Butter. The sights and smells of Victorian London are vividly described, particularly the macabre detail of Bridie’s childhood where she became an apprentice to a doctor, and it all makes for a cross between the raucous circus antics of Angela Carter’s fiction and the gothic elements of The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry – Bridie’s fierce independence is also reminiscent of Perry’s unorthodox main heroine. I am now keen to read Kidd’s previous two books ‘Himself’ and ‘The Hoarder’ which both have more contemporary settings and have been equally well received.