Saturday, November 01, 2008

Edwards Draws a Bead on Crippen

About three months ago, I was reading through Irish novelist Declan Burke’s excellent blog, Crime Always Pays, when I happened upon British writer Martin Edwards’ response to a question about the pitch for his next book: “Dr. Crippen tells how it really was,” Edwards wrote. Crippen? I thought. Could this be the same Hawley Harvey Crippen, mild-mannered homeopathic physician, who in 1910 reportedly murdered and then buried the partial remains of his domineering spouse, music hall singer Cora Crippen (aka “Belle Elmore”), beneath the brickwork floor of their London basement? The same Crippen who then fled England for Canada with his young employee and lover, Ethel Le Neve--the two disguised as a father and his son--only to be persuaded and then dramatically captured on the west side of the Atlantic by Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Walter Dew? Surely, I thought, the infamous and much-written-about H.H. Crippen must be Edwards’ fictional inspiration.

I was soon to learn that Edwards’ Crippen novel is called Dancing for the Hangman, and that it’s due for release from UK publisher Flambard Press sometime next week. (An American edition, published by Five Star, is supposed to be available next year.) The author explains the book’s basic plot on his Web site:
It is 1910 and Dr. Hawley Crippen has been convicted of the murder of his wife Cora. In his cell at Pentonville Prison, Crippen faces the prospect of the gallows. Laying bare his innermost feelings, he looks back at his austere childhood in Coldwater, Michigan, his tempestuous marriage and life on the run with his lover Ethel Le Neve. Yet as he revisits his life, Crippen entreats us to consider his ‘confession’: I am not a murderer.

In Dancing for the Hangman, Martin Edwards reopens the file on one of the most notorious and fascinating cases in criminal history. Edwards blends imaginative insight with detailed and extensive research to bring to life the characters and events of a hundred years ago. As he explores all the known facts of the murder case, Edwards skillfully reveals the many questions surrounding Crippen’s conviction and arrives at a fresh interpretation of the case.

Darkly humorous and highly readable, Dancing for the Hangman is also a strikingly vivid portrait of Crippen himself, drawing the reader deep into the mind of this hapless, baffling and complex figure.
Having written a bit about the Crippen case myself in The Rap Sheet, I was intrigued by what Edwards had in mind with Dancing for the Hangman. So, when I ran into this lawyer turned novelist at Bouchercon in Baltimore last month, I proposed sending him a few questions about the forthcoming book, its protagonist, and mysteries still urrounding the Crippen case. He said he’d be delighted to participate in that exchange, the results of which follow here.

J. Kingston Pierce: When did you first become interested in the strange case of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen?

Martin Edwards: After writing seven whodunits featuring the Liverpool lawyer, Harry Devlin, I wanted to try something very different. I had an idea which really excited me for a novel of psychological suspense, which became Take My Breath Away [2002]. The central character was a true-crime writer called Nic Gabriel, author of a book about the Crippen case. I’ve always had an interest in classic crimes, and the more I researched Crippen’s story, the more fascinated I became. My agent, Mandy Little, suggested I write a historical mystery about him, and it went on from there.

JKP: Was Dancing for the Hangman a novel you’d been thinking about writing for some years, but had resisted tackling until now? If so, what was it about the story that you found most challenging?

ME: I started the first version of the book about five years ago, right after Take My Breath Away--and enjoyed writing it enormously. However, I’d just moved publishers, and my editor was keen for me to write contemporary whodunits. He encouraged me to come up with the idea for a new series with a rural setting. This led to my dreaming up the concept for the Lake District Mysteries, so Crippen was put on the back burner. As it turned out, the first Lakes book, The Coffin Trail [2004], was very successful, so I had every incentive to continue with that series.

I remained passionately enthusiastic about the Crippen book, but my publishers on both sides of the Atlantic felt it was something of a distraction. They were probably right, since Dancing for the Hangman is totally different from my other books, and doesn’t fit into an obvious category. But I’d rather not be typecast (although I admit being typecast is sometimes commercially sensible!). Another factor was that John Boyne wrote a book about Crippen, and I wanted to let some time pass before my own take on the case appeared. The book now being published is, in effect, an edited-down version of the original manuscript. I lost about 20,000 words along the way, which inevitably helps the story to zing along.

JKP: How do you see the character of H.H. Crippen? And what was it about him that you found especially inviting, as somebody around whom to build your fiction?

ME: Crippen’s character, and the paradoxes of his behavior, have fascinated everyone who has studied the case. He was universally regarded as not merely charming, but kind. Yet apparently he not only murdered his wife, but mutilated her remains (her head was never found) and disposed of them in the strangest fashion. He remained devoted to his mistress right to the end, and she reciprocated his passion. If you know the British TV character Basil Fawlty [played by John Cleese in the 1970s sitcom Fawlty Towers], he reminds me slightly of a less irascible Basil--ultimately trapped in his own web of lies. There was obviously something special and intriguing about him--Raymond Chandler said, “You can’t help liking the guy.” My aim in writing the book was to stick to the facts (a bit tricky, since quite a few of the facts are disputed, but even so ...) and then try to provide a psychologically plausible explanation for actions which seem bizarre and inexplicable. A good task for a novelist to undertake, I think.

JKP: A while back, I read the John Boyne novel you referenced earlier, Crippen. He portrayed the title character as someone almost not in control of his own life. Did you see Crippen in that same light?

ME: I’m a fan of John Boyne; books like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas are destined to become classics. When I learned his [Crippen] book was coming out, I worried that we might cover much the same ground. In fact, the two stories are entirely different. He invents a great deal of the material, and to be honest, I’m not quite sure why. This is a case where truth was more extraordinary than fiction. So, it’s a well-written book, but I don’t think it tells us too much about the real man.

Having said that, most of us are not entirely in control of our own lives, and that was definitely true of Crippen.

JKP: What hurdles did you face in employing so many real-life figures in your own tale? And how obedient did you try to be, as far as portraying the players authentically?

ME: I decided at the outset not to invent any characters for this book--again, because the people who featured in the real-life case are so intriguing--and I never regretted this. The members of the Music Hall Ladies’ Guild, for instance, were determined amateur sleuths who rivaled Miss Marple in their quest for the truth about the fate of their friend Cora Crippen. With people like Ethel Le Neve, my focus was on trying to figure out the differences between her own account of events and what is likely actually to have happened.

JKP: I assume that the volume of research for this book was more extensive than what you have drawn on for some previous novels. Can you give me an idea of what that research entailed?

ME: Among other things, I studied the trial transcript and all the factual books and newspaper reports I could find. I debated it with a leading true-crime specialist (who was kind enough to comment on my first draft). I even went so far as to buy some of Crippen’s letters--including one he sent to his lawyer while awaiting execution--and a little-known booklet he wrote. It’s a familiar story, but I was struck (as I often am in my day job as a solicitor) how many factual contradictions exist in the statements of the witnesses. Many lies were told, but there were also careless mistakes and mysterious inconsistencies. So digging out the precise sequence of events wasn’t straightforward--but I did enjoy the process. And although I’m not a criminal lawyer, I think my professional experience helped me sort the wheat from the chaff.

JKP: You wrote in one of your own blog posts that you didn’t visit “the scene of the crime,” Crippen’s old neighborhood, Hilldrop Crescent in Camden, until after you finished work on Dancing. Why not? And what were your impressions when you did visit there?

ME: My aim in writing the book was to try to get inside the head of the man. I felt that the atmosphere of 21st-century Camden would be very different from that of Crippen’s time. And, in any event, his house was destroyed in the Blitz. But it was interesting to see the neighborhood--quiet, suburban, an incongruous setting for a crime so macabre that it was almost surreal.

JKP: You’ve said that your Crippen yarn adheres closely to the known facts of the story, yet “in some crucial respects it offers a fresh interpretation of the case.” Without giving too much away, can you give me some idea of how differently you see the circumstances of Cora Crippen’s murder and her husband’s fleeing England?

ME: I’ll just offer a few cryptic clues! The elements I focused on to achieve a new interpretation were Crippen’s interest in sex and drugs, the corrupt individuals who sought to make a fortune out of the media frenzy over the case, and the incredible legal shenanigans surrounding his trial.

JKP: I was surprised, in reading through the Dancing for the Hangman page of your Web site, that you suggest Crippen was innocent of the crime for which he was executed. What led you to suspect that he was wrongly tried? And if he didn’t do in his wife, who else might have? And was that other person ever a real suspect?

ME: Well, you’ll have to read the book for a full answer! Suffice to say that one aspect of my “solution” has been discussed in the past, but I have also focused on another murder--which was not that of Crippen’s wife. ...

JKP: Did your conclusions about Crippen fit with what what Michigan scientists determined last year, which was that whoever was buried in Crippen’s basement, it was not his wife? And if not her, then whose dismembered body was it?

ME: The suggestion that DNA evidence proves that the body in the cellar didn’t belong to Crippen’s wife is enthralling. But like most people who have studied the case, I find it exceptionally difficult to believe. If the DNA theory is right, Crippen ranks as the unluckiest man in the history of criminal justice. The whole idea raises far more questions than it answers--including the very pertinent question you’ve asked. I’m sure we will hear more about this theory, but it will be interesting to see how it fares when, in its turn, it encounters detailed forensic scrutiny.

JKP: As much as Crippen and the ill-fated Cora are prime players in this gruesome drama, so are Chief Inspector Walter Dew and Ethel Le Neve. What’s your view of those characters?

ME: Dew was widely criticized--not least for taking Crippen out for lunch!--but in the end, he did get his man. He too liked Crippen a lot, and resigned from Scotland Yard as soon as the trial was over. I don’t think he was a great detective, but he wasn’t a fool, either. Supporters of the DNA theory have sometimes suggested Dew (and pretty much everyone else involved) was corrupt. Not impossible, but I don’t believe it for a minute.

Ethel is a supremely intriguing figure, and it’s hard to believe she knew nothing about what her lover was up to.

JKP: One of the most fascinating tidbits of this story, is that, apparently, Le Neve married after being acquitted in the Crippen murder and lived until 1967. But she never told her husband of several decades about her relationship with the notorious homeopathic physician. How do you suppose somebody keeps such a thing secret for so long? Was she simply embarrassed by her role in Crippen’s story?

ME: I think there’s more to it than that. She was very, very good at keeping secrets, and she took a number of them to her grave. At her trial (she was acquitted) she was portrayed as the meek little woman who was in the “masterful” Crippen’s thrall. But I think she exerted a great deal of influence over him. For his part, Crippen was absolutely determined to protect her from harm, and he succeeded.

JKP: There have been a number of stories written over the years in which Crippen has been portrayed. Do you have any favorites, or do you find them all wanting?

ME: My favorite, by a long way, is Peter Lovesey’s The False Inspector Dew [1982], a modern classic by a brilliant entertainer. It is not a re-telling of the case, but a wonderfully twisty period whodunit.

JKP: I get the impression that pathologist Bernard Spilsbury plays an unusually prominent role in Dancing for the Hangman. Is that correct? And if so, what has led you to promote him in your fiction?

ME: The Crippen trial was a landmark in the use of forensic evidence. Until then, the reputation of forensic pathology was in the doldrums. Spilsbury changed all that, starting with his decisive performance when asked to explain the significance on the shreds of flesh found in Crippen’s cellar. But perhaps it’s as unwise to worship forensic “evidence” unthinkingly as to decry its usefulness.

JKP: So much has been written over the years about Hawley Harvey Crippen. Do you think we’ll ever really know the full facts of his case? And would knowing them destroy the mysterious aspects that keep this story alive?

ME: The case has so many amazing facets that it will cause bafflement and controversy forever. Unlike the [Jack the] Ripper case, a man was convicted and hanged, but in some ways the facts offer almost as much scope for re-interpretation as the Whitechapel murders. I don’t claim that my interpretation is bound to be right--who can know? But I like to think it captures some of the psychological truths about the man, and what happened to him.

JKP: Having now written your Crippen novel, are you encouraged to tackle other historical mysteries?

ME: Definitely. I've written quite a number of short historical mysteries over the years, as well as several Sherlockian pastiches, but I found Dancing for the Hangman even more enjoyable to write. So if a publisher were to be interested ...

READ MORE:CHAT 100: Crime Writer Martin Edwards on the Lure of Ciphers, the Beauty of Venice, and the Stories that Linger,” by Julia Buckley (Mysterious Musings); “A Moment to Cherish,” by Martin Edwards (‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’).


Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

wasn't Crippin the first person caught by transatlantic telephone call?

J. Kingston Pierce said...

That is, of course, part of the basis of the story in Erik Larson's excellent non-fiction book, Thunderstruck.


Leigh Russell said...

Life is full of surprises, one of the better ones the discovery of your blog. As a writer of crime fiction, I'm a fan! I'm only sorry I didn't find you sooner.

My first book, Cut Short, is published in March, the first in a series. If you're interested you might like to check it out on my publisher's website You may recognise them as publishers of Robert B Parker and Edward Bunker. If you like what you see, I'd be thrilled to be interviewed on your blog in March.

Please drop by my blog in any case, where I discuss writing, the publishing process, and various other random thoughts by myself and others interested in reading and writing. It would be great to hear from you.

Thanks again for such an informative blog. I could lose myself here for hours . . .