I bring you another non-fiction book that brings to life what a real murder investigation was like in Britain in the early XX century.
The Murder that Defeated Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes: At Mrs Ridgley’s Corner by Paul Stickler. A fascinating true police-procedural account from the early XXc
In 1919, when a shopkeeper and her dog were found dead in Hitchin, Hertfordshire with brutal head injuries, there followed an extraordinary catalogue of events and a local police investigation which concluded that both had died as a result of a tragic accident. A second investigation by Scotland Yard led to the arrest of an Irish war veteran, but the outcome was far from conclusive.
Written from the perspective of the main characters involved and drawing on original and newly-discovered material, this book exposes the frailties of county policing just after the First World War and how it led to fundamental changes in methods of murder investigations.
Offering a unique balance of story-telling and analysis, the book raises a number of unanswered questions. These are dealt with in the final chapter by the author’s commentary drawing upon his expertise.
About the author:
Paul Stickler joined Hampshire Constabulary in 1978 and spent the majority of his time in CID. He spent many years involved in murder investigations and was seconded to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia to study international perspectives of crime investigation. Since his retirement in 2008 he has combined his professional knowledge with his passion for history, researching murders in the first half of the twentieth century. He spends his days delivering lectures to a wide range of audiences. More can be found out about him on his website: www.historicalmurders.com
Although the above is the official information included in the book, I could not resist but copy the profile from his website.
A retired detective, Paul Stickler has turned criminologist and crime historian and explores the detail behind some of the most fascinating cases in criminal history. His experience in murder investigations coupled with his passion for history make his presentations absorbing, challenging, entertaining and informative. He has recently published his first book about a bizarre murder investigation in Hertfordshire just after the First World War. He is a member of the Crime Writers’ Association.
Paul has featured in a number of television and radio programmes about his career and his research into early twentieth-century murders.
He studied history with the Open University obtaining a Bachelor’s degree (1997), graduated from the FBI academy in Quantico, Virginia with a post-graduate diploma in Law Enforcement (1997) and read criminology at Solent University for his Master’s degree (2013) specialising in the research of historical crime. He is a Visiting Fellow of Solent University and his hobbies include gliding, high altitude walking and playing guitar (badly) and piano (even worse).
Oh, and the website is fascinating, to people interested in true crime and also those authors or scholars researching the topic. I recommend it.
Thanks to Alex, Rosie and the whole team at Pen & Sword for providing me a paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
I was fascinated by this book and by the way it is told. The case itself cannot compare to some of the sophisticated cases we read about in mysteries and thrillers, complex and full of twist and turns. A shopkeeper, widowed, that lived with her dog, and sold a bit of everything, appeared murdered on a Monday morning, next to the body of her dog. There was blood everywhere, she’d evidently been hit on the head, possibly with a weight that was found close to the body, and there was money missing. People had been at her shop on Saturday evening and one of her neighbours had heard some strange noises in the early hours of Sunday, but that was it. This was 1919, and, of course, forensics were not as advanced as they are now, but there was an investigation of sorts, although, surprisingly, in the first instance the local police decided it had been an accident. When the new police chief revised the case, he was not so convinced, and called on Scotland Yard for assistance. They sent Detective Chief P. S. Wensley, who had been involved (although only marginally) in the investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders and would become pretty well-known for the Houndsditch murders and the siege of Sidney Street. Unfortunately, two weeks had passed since the original crime he was sent to investigate, the body had been buried, and the evidence had not been well-looked after, but still… He and his team investigated and put together a case against an Irish immigrant who’d fought the war. And, well, the rest is history (and you’ll have to read it yourselves).
Despite, or perhaps because, of the somewhat ‘simple’ murder, the book is a fascinating read. The author —evidently familiar with current crime investigation techniques— explains his reasons for choosing to tell this story, to recover the case of a fairly anonymous woman, and to do it in this particular way, pointing out that he did not intend to set off on a ‘cold-case’ type of investigation. In his own words:
That is the beautiful thing about history; trying to show exactly what happened using original material and putting it in a contemporary social setting so that the reader can better understand and make sense of it all. I hope that the narrative has not only thrown light on policing in the early part of the century but portrayed it as a piece of history and not as retrospective critique. (Stickler, 2018, p. 145)
In my opinion, he succeeds. Stickler’s method, which consists in looking over the shoulder of the people who were investigating the murder and those who participated in the court case, showing us what they would have seen, and guessing at what they might have thought, while at the same time providing us historical background, so we are able to understand how the police force worked, and what the atmosphere was like in the country shortly after WWI, works very well. As we read the book we can’t help but think about what we would have done, worry about their mistakes, and wonder about the missing details and the conflicting witness statements and evidence. We learn about the social make-up of the town, the relationships between the different communities, the way the police force worked at the time, and we gain a good understanding of the legal issues as well, without having to read long and dry historical treatises. The writer has done a great deal of research and his skill as a writer is evidenced in the way he seamlessly creates an involving narrative that never calls undue attention to it. For the sake of completion, the author includes a commentary at the end, where he provides a postscript, as it were, with information about what happened to the protagonists, and also with his own speculations (that he had kept to himself until then) as to why things happened as they did.
I recommend this book to people who are interested in true crime, especially in Britain, Criminology and Criminal Justice System students, readers who enjoy historical police procedural novels, and also writers of the genre interested in researching the topic (the bibliography and the author notes will be of great help, and there are also pictures from the time provide a fuller understanding of the story). And, as I said, I also recommend checking the author’s blog to anybody interested in the topic.
A great book and a fabulous resource.
Stickler, P. (2018). The murder that defeated Whitechapel’s Sherlock Holmes: At Mrs Ridgley’s corner. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword.
Thanks to Alex and the author for the book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and always keep smiling.