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Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Book Review: The Maul and the Pear Tree by P.D. James and T.A. Critchley

This book, originally published in 1971, chronicles the real-life case of the Ratcliffe Murders of 1811 where two families were barbarously murdered in London's East End. The bare facts of the case were already familiar to me: seven victims brutally killed, a nationwide panic followed by the arrest of a sailor, John Williams, who later killed himself.  One of the most grisly parts of the famous murder case occurred afterwards, though, as Williams's corpse was paraded through the streets of London along with the murder weapons.

The central hypothesis of this book is that Williams was wrongly accused. To get to that point we're treated to a step-by-step account of the murders and investigation, pieced together as well as it can be by two writers looking at the case after a 160 year gap. The first necessity of this book is to create early nineteenth-century London in the mind of the reader and this is accomplished very well in the opening chapters, though the murders are kept in sight at all times. James and Critchley give enough information for the location to be vivid but without detracting from the case at hand. Their conversational yet analytic style makes this an easy book to read, even though it becomes extremely gruesome in parts. The macabre fascination with the brutality of these killings has lingered on through the decades, making it as compelling a mystery now as it was in 1811.

With the distance of time, however, the case can be looked at objectively. The police investigation is critiqued, along with the actions of individuals, building up as complete a body of evidence as possible for the authors to analyse. This, of course, takes much of the book. I have to admit that I was eager to get to the arguments in favour of Williams's innocence but you have to read the book carefully for the conclusions to make sense. However, they do make sense, with James and Critchley giving a plausible hypothesis for what really happened in 1811.

This is an extremely readable book which steers away from too many passages of dry, contemporary evidence in favour of a prose style which informs the reader of the evidence without boring them. When newspaper reports, letters and Hansard transcripts are used they are valuable to the book as a whole. This prevents it from becoming a stale list of he said/she said and gives James and Critchley more freedom to present the work in an accessible style. A thoroughly compelling, if grisly, account of a fascinating murder investigation.

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