Sherlock’s First Christmas

Sherlock’s First Christmas

There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it   This Christmas it will be 130 years since the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes. The iconic consulting detective’s début case, A Study in Scarlet, was serialised in Beeton’s Christmas Annual 1887.     The first ever story opens with the return of Dr John Watson to London after having been injured in the Battle of Maiwand. He is looking for a new roommate and a former colleague introduces him a possible candidate: ‘an enthusiast in some branches of science’, who is ‘a little queer in his ideas’ but ‘a decent fellow’. John encounters Sherlock for the first time in a chemistry lab, where the latter is experimenting on a test to detect bloodstains (over a decade before the actual test was developed). As narrator, Watson gives us the first tantalising details about this ‘walking calendar of crime’. Sherlock is just over six feet tall and ‘excessively lean’. He has sharp, piercing eyes, a thin, hawk-like nose and a prominent chin. More importantly, he is a first-class chemist, good at anatomy and is dedicated to the ‘science of deduction and analysis’.   Sherlock’s first crime case arrives in the form of a letter to 221B Baker Street from Scotland Yard – a man’s body has been found in an empty house. The victim was identified, by a letter on his person, as Enoch Drebber, from Cleveland, Ohio. Watson and Holmes jump in a hansom cab and rush to the scene,...
The Dark Side of Dickens

The Dark Side of Dickens

Christmas isn’t Christmas without Dickens, and with a new film out about his creation of A Christmas Carol, attention is once again on the author who is universally celebrated at this time of year. However, not all Charles Dickens’ tales had the festive feel-good factor. Much of his writing had a ‘dark’ side, revealing his obsession with crime, a fear of which had haunted him from his earliest days.   Charles Dickens was born in 1812, in Portsea near Portsmouth. He was the second of six surviving children. At the age of ten, the Dickens family moved to London, where their fortunes began to take a downward turn. Two years later, young Charles was sent to work in a blacking factory on the Thames. His job was to seal the boot blacking into pots and to stick on the labels, all for just six shillings a week. Soon the family was plunged further into despair, after Charles’ father John was arrested for debt and interned in Marshalsea prison. Dickens’ precarious childhood led to fears of being destitute or, worse still, turning to crime, which he later explored in his fiction.     After completing a shorthand course, Dickens, aged 19, became a political reporter and was plunged into the noisy and chaotic world of parliament. A short while later, he started to write short observations of urban life which, in 1836, he published in Sketches by Boz. In this collection, his interest in crime was revealed for the first time through his descriptions of the crime-infested rookeries of Seven Dials, the criminal courts and the infamous Newgate prison. He...
Remembering the Manchester Martyrs

Remembering the Manchester Martyrs

150 years ago today, William Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brien were hanged in Manchester – they had been convicted of the murder of Sergeant Charles Brett on 18 September 1867. Whilst researching my book Who Killed Constable Cock? I delved into the history of the Irish community in Manchester and I was shocked by what I discovered. This sensational and highly emotive case of the Manchester Martyrs cast a long shadow on the city, and had a drastic impact on the outcome of PC Nicholas Cock’s murder almost a decade later.   Between 1841 and 1851, Manchester’s population rose by some 73,000, with a third of the new citizens being migrants from Ireland. By the 1850s, 15 per cent of the city’s residents were of Irish origin, and a decade later they made up a fifth of the inhabitants. Despite their hopes for a better life, the migrants suffered high unemployment and dire poverty, making the Irish the largest and poorest ethnic minority at that time. Many were forced to live in the notorious cellar dwellings on the banks of the river Medlock, which became known as ‘Little Ireland’. Some 20,000 people barely survived in these cramped, humid and almost subterranean rooms, with several families packed together in the worst conditions. To make matters even worse, the knowledge that one third of those receiving poor relief in the city were Irish migrants, fuelled the undercurrent of hostility and prejudice against the community. By the late 1860s, anti-Irish hatred was fiercer than ever following the fatal shooting of Sergeant Charles Brett by members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, also...
Black Dahlia, Red Rose

Black Dahlia, Red Rose

I am delighted to take part in the blog tour to celebrate Piu Eatwell’s latest book, Black Dahlia, Red Rose, which reexamines the sensational case of the murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947:   The murder of Elizabeth Short, known as the ‘Black Dahlia’, is a well-known historical cold case. What ignited your interest into this real-life murder mystery? As a former lawyer, I have a keen interest in cold cases.  Also, some years ago I was researching a television documentary for Channel 4 about the Manson murders.  This introduced me to the fascinating world of Hollywood and crime.  The Black Dahlia murder is the ultimate challenge for any true crime writer because it is the most famous unsolved cold case – with the exception of the Whitechapel murders in 1880s London.   Your last book, The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse, was set at the end of the 19th century, whereas Black Dahlia, Red Rose is set in the 20th. What differences did you encounter in researching the two periods? Did you have to adapt your methods? Although the worlds of my last two books are very different – ‘The Dead Duke’ is set in Edwardian England, ‘Black Dahlia, Red Rose’ in 1940s California – the methods of researching the books were essentially the same.  Both involved the detailed examination of court documents and police files.  They were both challenging to research, in different ways.  In the case of ‘The Dead Duke’, there was the sheer amount of information – literally hundreds of boxed files, housed at Nottingham University special collections.  In the case of...
Inspector Kildare and the Limehouse Golem

Inspector Kildare and the Limehouse Golem

This weekend the eagerly-awaited Ripperesque film, The Limehouse Golem, hit the big screen. After a false start (Vue Cinemas cancelled the scheduled showing without telling anyone) I finally got to see it, and it was well worth the wait. Based on Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd (now firmly on my TBR pile), the action opens in London, 1880, as reporter and failed playwright John Cree dies of poisoning. Reminiscent of the Florence Maybrick case (which took place 9 years later), suspicion is immediately cast on his wife, music hall star, Lizzie Cree. The day before this incident, the so-called Limehouse Golem, a brutal murderer, had claimed his latest victims, in the same location and with a similar MO as the Ratcliff Highway murders, when John Williams slaughtered linen draper Timothy Marr and his family, in 1811.     Enter Detective Inspector John Kildare, a previously overlooked police officer due to his not being ‘of the marrying kind’. Kildare (skilfully played by Bill Nighy) is instructed to investigate the latest Golem killing, despite his lack of experience, which leads him to the conclusion that he is being set up to fail. As he begins to follow the trail of the anonymous killer, he meets Lizzie Cree (Olivia Cooke), who is on trial for the murder of her husband. These two plots become intrinsically linked as the late John Cree is on Kildare’s list of prime suspects (along with Karl Marx!). Kildare engages with Lizzie as he tries to unpick both cases, in the hope of unmasking the Limehouse Golem and saving Mrs. Cree from the noose....
The Manchester Town Hall Tussle

The Manchester Town Hall Tussle

I’m delighted to have a guest post by Sue Wilkes, expert historian and author of the excellent, Tracing Your Manchester and Salford Ancestors:     Before Manchester and Salford were incorporated (1838 for the former and 1844 for Salford), the two towns were controlled by the ancient manorial courts and their officers: the borough-reeve and constables. In 1765 a Cleansing and Lighting Committee was set up for Manchester and Salford, but little progress was made in sanitary reform. Following the Manchester and Salford Police Act (1792), the towns were divided into eight districts, each with fifteen elected commissioners. These 120 police commissioners were responsible for paving, lighting, sewerage, watching, and cleaning and the night watch; in many respects they took over the manorial courts’ functions. One success story was the introduction of gas lighting in 1807.     However, the two towns’ population had greatly increased following the industrial revolution. The streets were filthy and poor people’s houses were overcrowded, unsanitary and unfit for human habitation. The police commissioners could not raise enough money to perform their functions properly, and local ratepayers were reluctant to pay for better services. This archaic civic machinery could not cope with major problems of law and order, as was made dreadfully apparent at the tragedy of the Peterloo Massacre (1819).     After a spirited battle by calico printers Richard Cobden and William Neild, banker Sir Benjamin Heywood, industrialist Thomas Potter and others, Manchester gained its charter of incorporation. The first Borough Council met on 16 December 1838. The following year, Sir Richard Beswick was made chief constable for Manchester Borough. Unfortunately, the...