Skip to main content

Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens's London

Review

Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens's London

The next time authorities want to make a connection between violent movies or video games and villainy, they may well want to cite MURDER BY THE BOOK, the shocking story of a Victorian murder that was inspired by a popular novel.

In May 1840, Lord William Russell, a one-time member of Parliament and uncle to the Duke of Bedford, was found by his maid in bed with his throat cut. The brutal murder captured everyone’s attention, in part because of concern that the servant class was turning on their masters. The police suspected Russell's valet, Courvoisier, but everyone in the household was at one time a suspect.

"Harman...manages to make MURDER BY THE BOOK both a whodunit and a social history of London in a time of upheaval --- a thrilling combination."

Eventually Courvoisier confessed that he had been inspired to commit the murder because he had been reading William Harrison Ainsworth's JACK SHEPPARD, the story of an unrepentant criminal who reveled in his perfidy. The book had sold very well and was subsequently pirated both as a novel and as a play, with young men particularly susceptible to its story line.

Claire Harman writes about the remarkable effect that JACK SHEPPARD had at the time, and also about Ainsworth’s friendship with Charles Dickens and acquaintance with William Thackeray, who attended and was moved by the valet’s execution. After the trial, the play was banned from being performed for the next 20 years, though producers simply changed the title and continued to mount it. There is also some question as to whether Ainsworth’s fiction was actually responsible, and even if the valet was really guilty, but no other suspects were ever seriously investigated.

Harman, an English literary biographer, manages to make MURDER BY THE BOOK both a whodunit and a social history of London in a time of upheaval --- a thrilling combination.

Reviewed by Lorraine W. Shanley on April 5, 2019

Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens's London
by Claire Harman

  • Publication Date: March 26, 2019
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction, True Crime
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0525520392
  • ISBN-13: 9780525520399