Crippen: John Boyne

★★★★

A Novel of Murder

In July 1910, the SS Montrose sets sail from Antwerp on her regular crossing to Canada, and the first-class passengers begin the cautious task of getting to know one another. The pushy Mrs Antoinette Drake and her daughter Victoria are, evidently, going to be trouble; so is the half-feral Tom, nephew of the mysterious Matthieu Zela who has bespoken the Presidential Suite. But there are some amenable characters on board too. Martha Hayes is a quiet spinster hoping to make a new life for herself in Canada; and the self-effacing John Robinson and his seventeen-year-old son Edmund are also escaping to a new world. Meanwhile, back in London, a horrific crime is discovered. Cora Crippen has been murdered and buried in tiny pieces in the cellar of her house. Her husband, Dr Crippen, has absconded with his mistress. But where can they be? And will there be enough time for Inspector Dew of Scotland Yard to track them down?

I came to this book with an unintentional handicap, in that I knew nothing about the real Dr Crippen – save the name and a vague sense that he’d done something terrible. For me, this was a genuine thriller: I had no idea what had happened and what the outcome would be, and I religiously kept myself away from Wikipedia for the interim, which took some doing. The reason I picked this up was because it was another book by John Boyne, whose Absolutist I enjoyed so much, and I was rewarded with another jolly good read – very different in spirit, of course, but equally compassionate and gripping.

Compassionate. That sounds odd, doesn’t it, in a novel dealing with one of the most infamous murderers of the 20th century? But it’s true. During the course of the book, we follow a man who grows up in challenging circumstances in Michigan, struggling to put himself through medical training in the face of resistance from an extremely religious mother. We see his ambitions thwarted; his anatomical fascination diverted into work at an abattoir; a later career spent as assistant to men whose only real superiority is in their ability to have paid for their degrees. And he struggles on. Facing bereavement and tragedy, he finds a second chance at love with the music-hall star Bella Elmore (a.k.a. Cora Turner) and they seek a new life in London. But their move brings new stresses and challenges to a marriage that was never really happy from the start.

Boyne crafts his tale in such a way that we have three different threads and timelines weaving in and out of one another: the voyage of the Montrose; the life story of Hawley Crippen; and the events of those final, fateful days which left a woman dead and dismembered beneath a Camden terrace. Of course the latter thread is largely fictional: Boyne’s version of events is born from his imagination, as no one can really know for sure what happened to Cora Crippen on that night. There are also other inventions: Hawley’s intensely religious mother and his first wife’s tragic death seem to be adapted from the truth and Louise Smythson, as far as I can see, is fictional. But these small additions all help to keep the story flowing and Boyne deftly ratchets up the tension until your nerves are singing. Trust me, too, when I say that you have some measure of sympathy for Hawley Crippen by the time the book is done.

There seem to have been all sorts of conspiracy theories over whether or not Crippen was guilty, and whether the body in the cellar really was that of Cora Crippen, but I found Boyne’s explanation persuasive, clever and unexpected. And who knows? It could be true. When some of the most implausible aspects of the story really are true (the masquerade on the Montrose, for a start), anything seems possible. While I’m very definitely not the kind of girl who enjoys serial killer or true crime stories per se, this was a proper old crime adventure story, written with flair and historical sensitivity.

I’m now convinced that Boyne is a terrific storyteller and can’t wait to ferret out some more of his books. I picked up that the enigmatic Matthieu Zela, who has a cameo role here, is the protagonist in Boyne’s other novel The Thief of Time, so perhaps that’s the one to track down next.

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