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by Laura Wilson
Quercus, November 2010
352 pages
20.0 0 GBP
ISBN: 1849163081

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Many people claim to dislike historical novels and even refuse to read them. My guess is that what they are thinking of are books featuring noblemen wearing tights and flourishing swords and their female counterparts in lovely satin frocks and flourishing formidable decolletage. In short, books set mostly at the courts of Henry VIII or of Louis XIV and XV. Characters in books of this sort tend to say "Fie, sir"or even "Unhand me, you varlet" rather more often than strictly desirable. What is being reflected here is a rather old-fashioned view of history, one that sees it largely as the record of significant deeds performed by (usually) men in high places.

But there is another way to look at the past, less dramatic, perhaps, but closer to the real experience of actual people and that is to focus on the acts of ordinary people constrained by the weight of their own times. Andrew Taylor's Lydmouth novels, set in a provincial English town in post-war Britain, are a splendid illustration of this approach, as the author has chosen an insignificant setting, a suffocating set of social conventions, and less than daring characters to demonstrate the painfully slow process of social change at work below the surface of their lives.

Though Laura Wilson's Stratton series is set in London and includes the great and the good occasionally among its cast of characters, her orientation is very similar to Taylor's. In A CAPITAL CRIME, the crimes are based closely on the real-life case made famous by Ludovic Kennedy in 10 RILLINGTON PLACE when Timothy Evans was hanged for the murder of his baby daughter. When later it transpired that another occupant of the house where the body of the child (and its mother) was found, one Reginald Christie, was responsible for the rapes and murders of a number of other women, including his unfortunate wife, then it was widely concluded that Evans's conviction was unsafe and that he had probably been hanged in error.

In her reconsideration of this iconic case, Wilson brilliantly evokes the utter dreariness of London in the immediate post-war period. Much is still rationed, the scars of bombing raids remain, and housing conditions are dire. Neighbourhoods that are now excruciatingly fashionable were then filled with squalid slums, still lit by gas (shilling in the meter) and often lacking indoor plumbing. In the wash house of just such a lodging are found the bodies of Muriel Davies and her little daughter following a bizarre confessional telegram sent to the police by John Davies (Timothy Evans's stand-in). Another tenant, Norman Backhouse (Christie), an officious former Special (volunteer) constable, stands ready to assist the police in any way he can and his evidence is crucial in the trial that ultimately condemns Davies to death for the murder of his toddler daughter.

There are anomalies in the evidence that make Stratton uneasy, but the visual memory of the tiny body of little Judy and the hopelessly contradictory accounts that Davies gives of himself override any doubt. It will not be for several years, when new tenants in the Backhouse rooms make a grisly discovery, that Backhouse's probable role in the Davies murders comes to the surface.

A CAPITAL CRIME is not simply a reconsideration of an historic and iconic case, nor does Wilson come to any firm conclusions about what actually happened. She is more interested in how this case reflects the situation of women in general in the period. At one end of the social scale is Diana Calthrop, first met in STRATTON'S WAR and now very much on a precipitous downward slide thanks to alarmingly poor judgement when it comes to men. Diana was brought up in a late Victorian style well out of date even in her own childhood - she was not sent to school but kept at home to cultivate the charms that would attract a suitable and dependable husband. These are in short supply, it seems and Diana finds herself utterly penniless following a pair of disastrous marriages. In the middle is Stratton's own daughter, Monica, troubled about her own sexual identity and ripe for exploitation by the glamourous men at the film studio where she works in the make-up department. And down at the bottom are Muriel Davies, Edna Backhouse, and all of Norman Backhouse's other sad victims, who had turned to him apparently in the hope of procuring a termination to a disastrous pregnancy.

Readers of a certain age may have a bit of trouble getting their minds around the idea that a novel set in the 1950s qualifies as an historical fiction. But the social attitudes that Wilson meticulously recreates make that period seem as far from us now as does the late Victorian era. This is a splendid, rich, and moving novel and blessedly free from tut-tutting, finger-pointing, or speechifying. When I read Wilson's Stratton series, I can only think how glad I am that I did not live in London at the time and how grateful I am to Laura Wilson for reminding us all what it was like if you did.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, December 2010

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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