Friday, September 4, 2020

Review of A Capital Crime by Laura Wilson (2010, Quercus)

Winter, 1950. A young woman and a 14 month old child are found dead in a washhouse behind a terraced slum in London. The husband confesses to the murders, though he proves to be a congenital liar, constantly changing his story. It seems like an open and shut case and John Davies is convicted of the crime, largely on the evidence of another resident of the house, Norman Backhouse, and hanged. A couple of years later, the bodies of four recently disappeared women are found in the house and two more are buried in the garden. The key suspect is the Backhouse. It seems like a terrible miscarriage of justice has occurred, unless two different murderers had been living in the same house at the same time. DI Ted Stratton had misgivings about the first case, and they’ve come back to haunt him. Meanwhile, ex-war time agent, Diana Calthrop, finds her life sliding backwards as two marriages fail leaving her in dire straits, and Stratton’s daughter finds herself struggling to make sense of her sexuality, and neither woman should be wandering London when so vulnerable.  

The third book of the DI Ted Stratton series fictionalises the events at 10 Rillington Place, where two sets of murders occurred in the early 1950s sending two men to the hangman. The first murderer was convicted in part on the evidence of the second one, casting significant doubt on the initial investigation, trial and guilty verdict. The cases subsequently led to two inquiries, though their findings were inconclusive, and influenced the decision to end capital punishment. In Wilson’s telling DI Stratton is the lead officer in both cases. He has misgivings while investigating the death of a young woman and 14 month old child. John Davies is a simpleton with a temper who continually tells lies. Some of the evidence doesn’t quite add up, but most points to Davies, who has also confessed. And everyone involved in the case, including Stratton, think him guilty. When a couple of years later, six more bodies are discovered in the house and garden, Stratton wonders if he’d made a terrible mistake, despite the evidence and confession. Along with the investigation, Wilson spins two other threads through the story, both of which are hooked around women’s sexuality and position in society. The first follows Monica Stratton as she enters the workplace and starts to question her sexual identity. The second focuses on Diana Calthrop, a woman Stratton holds a flame for, and her fall from grace as she divorces her first husband and quickly enters another doomed marriage. In part, these are included to provide a thread through the series, but they do add to rather than detract from the story arc. The result is a very nicely plotted tale that is very strong on exploring the psychological side of investigating emotive cases with criminals who constantly lie and charting character development, in particular, Stratton, Monica and Diana’s lives. The pacing, atmosphere and sense of place and time adds to the telling. Overall, the strongest book in the series, in my view.


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