Murder by the Book: Book summary and reviews of Murder by the Book by Claire Harman

Murder by the Book

The Crime That Shocked Dickens's London

by Claire Harman

Murder by the Book by Claire Harman X
Murder by the Book by Claire Harman
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  • Published in USA  Mar 2019
    272 pages
    Genre: True Crime

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Book Summary

The fascinating, little-known story of a Victorian-era murder that rocked literary London, leading Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and Queen Victoria herself to wonder: Can a novel kill?

In May 1840, Lord William Russell, well known in London's highest social circles, was found with his throat cut. The brutal murder had the whole city talking. The police suspected Russell's valet, Courvoisier, but the evidence was weak. The missing clue, it turned out, lay in the unlikeliest place: what Courvoisier had been reading. In the years just before the murder, new printing methods had made books cheap and abundant, the novel form was on the rise, and suddenly everyone was reading. The best-selling titles were the most sensational true-crime stories.

Even Dickens and Thackeray, both at the beginning of their careers, fell under the spell of these tales - Dickens publicly admiring them, Thackeray rejecting them. One such phenomenon was William Harrison Ainsworth's Jack Sheppard, the story of an unrepentant criminal who escaped the gallows time and again. When Lord William's murderer finally confessed his guilt, he would cite this novel in his defense.

Murder By the Book combines this thrilling true-crime story with an illuminating account of the rise of the novel form and the battle for its early soul among the most famous writers of the time. It is superbly researched, vividly written, and captivating from first to last.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. Lovers of Drood, Sherlock, Jack the Ripper, and their kin real and fictional will relish the gruesome details of this entertaining book." - Kirkus

"Starred Review. By exploring concerns about the glorification of criminals in the fiction of the day and addressing some lingering mysteries, such as whether Courvoisier had an accomplice, Harman adds depth to a fascinating true crime narrative." - Publishers Weekly

"A remarkable story which Harman draws so skillfully ... A brilliant piece of literary detective work." - Evening Standard (UK)

"Harman's meticulous research places the murder within the literary context of the day, from Dickens's fascination with true crime to Thackeray's repudiation of it. The result is a fascinating portrait of Victorian London amid the rising popularity of the novel." - The Observer (UK)

"This beautifully produced and impressively researched historical account of a celebrated Victorian murder with a literary twist reads like a thriller. I devoured it in one sitting, and was at once enthralled and chilled. Highly recommended!" - Alison Weir

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Reader Reviews

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Sandi W.

true crime revision
This is the true crime revision of the death of the British aristocrat Lord William Russell. He was killed in his bed, in London in 1840. The book goes on to solve the crime. However, in the interim, the author goes on to illustrate the beginnings of the 'Newgate novels', which was the birth of the fiction crime novel. These novels spoke to and about the working class man but also romanticized crime and violence. It was through this process that Lord Williams killer was ultimately caught, as his killers' inspiration and method were taken from a Newgate novel.

I found this to be a very unusual read for a non-fiction book. For a true crime story, from the mid-1800s, to read like a fictional history is unique. The language that the author used was more true to that time period than to today's works and for me took a little time to settle into. Once seated into the book I felt it read very well.

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Author Information

Claire Harman

Claire Harman is the author of Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart; Sylvia Townsend Warner, for which she won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize; biographies of Fanny Burney and Robert Louis Stevenson; and Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a frequent reviewer. She divides her time between New York City and Oxford, England.

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