I’m not a fan of contemporary true crime, much too gruesome, but I do enjoy reading about historical mysteries. This book, The Anatomy of Murder, is one of a series of books originally published in the 1930s that have been recently reprinted. The authors, all well-known detective novelists in their time, were also members of the Detection Club, an institution still in existence today. The Detection Club’s archivist, Martin Edwards, is a distinguished detective novelist & has written the Introduction to this book. Martin has also written a history of the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder, which is published next month.
The Anatomy of Murder explores seven murder mysteries from the Victorian period to the 1930s. There are well-known stories such as the murder of three year old Francis Saville Kent at Road Hill House (recently the subject of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale) (by John Rhode), the case of Adelaide Bartlett who was accused of poisoning her husband Edwin with chloroform (by Margaret Cole) & the murder of Julia Wallace (by Dorothy L Sayers).Then there’s one that solved a bit of a puzzle for me. I’d always wondered who the Landru in the publisher’s name Crippen & Landru was. Now I know. He was a Frenchman who, in the early 20th century, murdered at least a dozen women, leaving no trace of their existence. He chose his victims carefully, single women or widows with no family. He met them through the personal ads, looking to buy furniture, took them to his secluded country house & there, murdered them. How he disposed of the bodies isn’t definitely known but these women were there one day & gone the next. It’s a chilling story of a man with no remorse for what he had done. He never admitted his crimes & stayed calm throughout a lengthy investigation & trial.
The cases aren’t confined to Europe. The first story, by Helen Simpson, is set in Australia in 1865. The story of Henry Kinder is a tale of a love triangle. Kinder was a heavy drinker & his death was first thought to be suicide. However, his wife’s lover, Louis Bertrand, started making wild statements about the case & was eventually charged with Kinder’s murder. Another case, in New Zealand, is the final story in the book. Freeman Wills Croft tells the story of the double murder of a sheep farmer, Samuel Lakey & his wife, Christobel. Christobel was found drowned in the dam on their property but this was obviously no accident. There was a wound on her face as though she had been knocked out & her body was found face down in the water, covered with sacks. The first idea was that Samuel had murdered his wife & fled, as he was nowhere to be found. However, through brilliant detective work & careful forensic examination of the crime scene, it became apparent that Samuel too had been murdered. The murderer’s plan was clever but, as is often the case, just a few mistakes set the police on the right path. Proving it was the difficulty when physical evidence of Samuel’s death was elusive.
My favourite chapter was on the murder of Julia Wallace, a case that, even today, is a cause of controversy. Just a couple of years ago, P D James came up with a new theory in the case (I haven’t been able to read her article as it’s behind a paywall but the main points of her theory are here). William Herbert Wallace was tried for the murder of his wife, Julia, in 1931. The case is baffling because, as Sayers writes, every fact can be interpreted in at least two ways. Wallace seemed to have no motive for the killing & his alibi was unusual. He was an insurance salesman & said that he had received a telephone message asking him to go to an address the next evening to meet a man about an insurance policy. The man & the address turned out to be fictitious but while Wallace was roaming around looking for this address, his wife, Julia, was battered to death in their home. Had Wallace himself made the phone call to establish an alibi or, had the murderer made the call to get Wallace out of the way?
Dorothy L Sayers looked at the case as a detective novelist & assessed the facts as if the story were a novel. The business with the phone call & the alibi is very like fiction but it was fact. The dilemma was in interpreting the facts. Wallace’s behaviour – calling attention to himself repeatedly on the tram journey to the fictitious address, making sure his neighbours were with him when the body was discovered – could be interpreted as guilty or innocent. Witnesses who could have proved that Julia was alive after Wallace left the house were dismissed as mistaken or unreliable. If this had been a novel, Sayers or James would have been able to come down on one side or the other according to their plan but, in real life, it wasn’t so easy. Wallace was acquitted but many people still believe him guilty & if he was innocent, the real murderer got away with his crime.
Frances Iles examines the Rattenbury case of 1935, where an elderly man was murdered by the lover of his much younger wife. Alma Rattenbury’s case has been compared with that of Edith Thompson, who was hanged for the murder of her husband in similar circumstances even though she had not actually committed the murder or been aware of her lover’s intentions. It was considered that Mrs Thompson was executed for adultery rather than murder & there was considerable sympathy for her at the time so Mrs Rattenbury’s case was treated differently. As Iles says,
However, if it was the women of England who hanged Mrs Thompson, against all reason and all justice, then it was equally due to the women of England that Mrs Rattenbury was saved from the gallows; for if Mrs Thompson had not been hanged, Mrs Rattenbury surely would have been.
Alma Rattenbury’s life was ruined by the trial & the publicity & she committed suicide shortly afterwards. Although there was really no mystery about the murder itself, as George Stoner wasn’t clever enough to even try to hide his guilt, it was a landmark case in that the personal life of the people involved was excluded from deliberations of the Court. The judge in the Rattenbury trial was determined not to make the same mistakes as his colleague had in the Thompson case. No matter what the judge, lawyers or jury may have thought of the morals of the accused, they didn’t allow it to influence their decision.
A new anthology of true crime writing by members of the Crime Writers’ Association, Truly Criminal, is about to be published. It includes essays by Catherine Aird, Peter Lovesey & a newly discovered essay on the Wallace case by Margery Allingham. I’m looking forward to reading it.