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Monday, 16 June 2014

Book Review: The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable by Carol Baxter

The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable recounts the real-life arrest of Quaker John Tawell, arrested on New Year's Day 1845 with assistance from the electric telegraph system that ran from Slough to London. However, the title is really only something for the writer to hang their hat on. This may have been the first case assisted by the telegraph wires, yes, but it is a fascinating one even disregarding that.

Tawell converted to Quakerism and spent a lot of time trying to fit in but marriage to an outsider didn't help his case. There's a lot in this book on Quaker rules and regulations - as they were at the beginning of the nineteenth century - and it makes for fascinating reading for those of us who hadn't really looked into it before. While some of Tawell's frustrations can be linked to these rules, his conviction for fraud (while trying to hide behind his uniform) demonstrates Tawell's tenuous grip on morality. The pages about his transportation to Australia are excellent and don't feel at all superfluous.

The murder Tawell is accused of is the poisoning of single mother Sarah Hart. Baxter's research is fantastic and her lucid narrative style almost puts you in the house at the time of the murder. She also knows when to flick back and forth between aspects of the story, ensuring that the reader is both interested in what's being told and intrigued about what she will return to. The atmosphere she recreates later in the prison is stifling and ridiculously realistic.

I don't want to spoil any more of the details of this fascinating case so I'll leave it there. However, I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book, particularly the meticulous research and the complete immersion in Tawell's life that it results in. I'll definitely read more by Baxter in the future.

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