When Martin Edwards blogged about receiving the newly published audio book version of his fact-based novel Dancing for the Hangman I did what I usually do when I hear about interesting new audio books: check audible. Not only was it available but it was even on sale to ‘people in my geographical location’ so I immediately coughed up a credit. This kind of fictionalised account of real events is not something I read a lot of but reviews of this book were excellent and I was very impressed with my first exposure to Edwards, via The Coffin Trail, earlier this year.
On the off-chance that I’m not the only person who’s never heard of Hawley Crippen before I’ll outline the basics. He was an American physician who was married to a woman called Cora who wanted a career as a singer. They lived in England together from the late 1890’s but had an unhappy marriage. Crippen began an affair with one of his employees, a woman called Ethel Le Neve, and several years later (1910) Cora disappeared from Crippen’s life suddenly. Cora’s friends were skeptical of Crippen’s explanation for Cora’s disappearance and eventually got the police to investigate. Hawley and Ethel fled the country following their first interview with police which raised suspicions and sent the police in hot pursuit. Crippen was captured, tried, convicted of murder and subsequently executed. The case was one of the first to achieve worldwide media attention and, in recent times, Crippen’s guilt has been disputed though not universally.
Dancing for the Hangman is a fictionalised account of Crippen’s life leading up to the events of 1910. Although it is fictional, Edwards has researched the case thoroughly and makes use of original source material such as court transcripts, personal letters and contemporary newspaper articles. It felt to me as if Edwards had laid out as many indisputable facts as he could using this material, then creatively filled in the gaps with what might have happened. The resulting ‘untrue crime’ had me thoroughly hooked from the very beginning to the highly plausible solution which Edwards provides to the question of whether or not Crippen was guilty.
The story is told in flashback by Crippen as he awaits his death in Pentonville prison. The doctor is portrayed as a complex character. At times I sympathised with his naivety and the rotten luck he had in securing himself an unsuitable wife (no one seems to dispute her penchant for other men) but at other points he’s quite delusional and, as he also spent much of his working life as little more than a quack, not entirely trustworthy. Since finishing the book I was curious enough to do a modicum of my own ‘research’ (i.e. googling) and see that a lot of the people who dispute Crippen’s guilt seem to do so based on their assumption that a short, quiet man who could be very kind would never commit murder. However Edwards does a superb job of showing us how just such a man might have grown into a murderer. It always seems to me that in real life most domestic murders happen for exactly the kind of mundane reasons proposed in this book. Of course Edwards might have gotten it completely wrong but I wouldn’t let that deter you because, either way, the book is genuinely intriguing.
Perhaps I was lucky that I came to this book with completely fresh eyes (or ears if we’re being pedantic) but I imagine that even those who are more familiar with the case would be as entertained as I was by this superbly written tale. It is both impressive and slightly troubling to see just how well Martin Edwards has crawled inside the head of such a character to show the world from Hawley Crippen’s point of view. If you’re a fan of audio books I can heartily recommend Jeff Harding’s evocative narration which added a final element of enjoyment for me.
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My rating 4.5/5
Narrator: Jeff Harding; Publisher: Isis Audio Books [2010, original edition 2008]; ISBN: N/A (downloaded from audible.com); Length 11 hrs 26mins; Setting: US/England late 1800’s – 1910
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I’ve reviewed one of Martin Edwards many crime fiction novels, The Coffin Trail, and am looking forward to reading more by this versatile writer.