Edmund Fleetwood has an unfortunate handicap for a man who wants to make his name as a criminal lawyer. He has principles. When the Home Secretary asks him to review the Edgeware Road murder case, in which a woman is liable to hang for concealing a murder, Edmund finds himself becoming deeply emotionally involved in what he believes to be a fundamental miscarriage of justice. Based on a real murder committed in 1836, Anna Mazzola’s debut novel sets the facts of the case within a tantalising web of secrets.
There’s something that Sarah Gale isn’t saying. The facts of the matter are clear: someone killed Hannah Brown on Christmas Day and someone dismembered her body, scattering the pieces to the four corners of London. As the year changes from 1836 to 1837, the pieces are found, one by one, and the net closes in Hannah’s fiancé James Greenacre and his mistress Sarah. But did they really do it? Greenacre admits the dismemberment but insists that Hannah was dead when he found her and that Sarah knew nothing, but this is a leap of faith too far for the judge and jury who sentence her to death. When Sarah submits a petition begging for clemency, the support of certain influential figures – including Mrs Fry and her do-gooders – means that the government must be seen to review her case; and so Edmund is brought in, with his idealism and his clear-eyed probity. Through meetings with Sarah and interviews with witnesses and other parties, he seeks to understand what truly happened on the night of the murder, even though something niggles uncomfortably at the back of his mind. The evidence doesn’t add up… but where’s the flaw? If only he could find it, he believes that Sarah might yet be freed; but time is running out.
Mazzola is herself a criminal justice solicitor and so she’s well-placed to convey the thrill of examining evidence and the care needed to check and double-check. Edmund’s world in the chambers of the Temple is thoroughly convincing and, although Newgate itself has long since vanished, Mazzola makes its bleakness, brutality and misery all too believable. The characterisation is strong, thanks to a good ear for the speech of the day: Sarah, with her educated upbringing, is immediately distinguishable from an earthier character like Rook, even if we’re not told who is speaking. And, through quotes at the head of each chapter, taken from contemporary papers, the story is anchored to the historical facts.
However, I felt that the book was slightly less successful in the events that Mazzola has invented. I must tread carefully here, because I don’t want to give away spoilers. What I mean is that I wasn’t entirely convinced by the solution we were offered, nor by the characters’ reactions to it (this is a novel, after all, not a history and several of the characters – including Edmund himself – are the author’s own invention). Even at the end, I don’t understand why Sarah is so loath to claim that she was coerced by Greenacre: it would have brought her leniency under the law and the support of various charitable ladies. There are also certain coincidences which struck me as slightly implausible: perhaps a case of over-egging the pudding just a little too much, or perhaps my own fault for reading this as a fictionalised review of the historical case, rather than a family saga which uses historical fact as its scaffolding. This doesn’t prevent the story being a perfect engaging thriller, but it does mean that the tension sags a little towards the end.
Still, this is a well-crafted debut and an absorbing account of a rather grisly murder. Victorian court cases have become a popular subgenre of history and historical fiction in recent years and, if you’ve enjoyed The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Wicked Boy – or even Victorian prison dramas like Affinity – you should keep an eye out for this. I’d love to know what others have thought of the denouement. Am I being unjustly harsh in finding it a bit flabby?
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for a fair and honest review