* Prices may differ from that shown
In 1908 a wealthy lady, Mrs Caroline Luard, was murdered in a Kent village, shot dead in an isolated summerhouse. Describing it as "one of the great unresolved mysteries of the twentieth century", Minette Walters reconstructs this true crime story in an account that features real and fictional characters.
Being set in 1908, this book instantly appealed to me as I find the Edwardian era a particularly interesting period of history. I love reading about true crime and I had never heard of the Luard case before, so was keen to find out more. This book is one of the Quick Reads series, primarily intended to enthuse reluctant readers but also handy for those of us who don't have as much time to read as we would like.
As I read the foreword to the book, I was a little surprised and somewhat disappointed to be told straightaway that no one was ever arrested for this crime and that Mrs Luard's husband was suspected by many of being the murderer. My initial reaction was that the author had given too much away, but as I continued to read I quickly realised that this did not lessen my interest in the story but actually highlighted the drama for me. Because you know that Charles Luard was the prime suspect in many people's minds, you view him as a potential murderer from the start. This makes you pay special attention to his every gesture and every word. Everything has significance and you are drawn in from the first page, never quite sure whether you want to find him guilty or innocent.
What I liked about this story was the way the author managed to keep me questioning throughout. One minute she has you thinking that the crime was the work of a novice, the next minute you're contemplating whether it could have been carried out by a hired professional. Sometimes the evidence seems to point to Charles Luard, but a few pages later you are given another piece of information that seems to put him in the clear. Before long you are suspecting him again. The gradual introduction of new theories and new characters held my attention and really helped me to relate to the frustrations of those involved in the investigation, trying to piece together such a complex jigsaw puzzle.
As you might expect from a Quick Read, there isn't time for extensive description in this book, which will suit those readers who get bogged down by too much poetic language. That doesn't mean that the writing lacks atmosphere, however. I felt that Minette Walters painted very vivid pictures in my mind and I loved her attention to detail, particularly the way she uses contrast for dramatic effect. For instance, she made me imagine Caroline Luard and her husband strolling along a dusty lane on a sunny afternoon, a scene that should have been idyllic but for the gruesome events that were to follow.
She also describes the glow of the police lanterns that are lit around the crime scene, their soft, beautiful glow seeming at odds with the brutal acts that had occurred within the summerhouse. We are left in no doubt that violence has intruded into a world of hitherto calm and respectability. The silk glove and straw hat with cherries on the brim, which are found close to Mrs Luard's blood-spattered body seem to symbolise the absurdity of murder occurring in such a genteel place.
I loved the period detail and I felt that a credible picture of England in 1908 emerged. It illustrates the class divide sharply. I winced at some of the dialogue when the police officers spoke of the murder being the sort of crime that "low-grade vermin" or "worthless layabouts" might commit and the way the victim's husband, who is a Major General, a County Councillor and Justice of the Peace, is treated as being above the law by his close friend, the Chief Constable of Kent. The book sheds light on what life was like for rich and poor - it is shocking to think that the summerhouse where Caroline died was big enough to house four poor families - and for women in general, although some of the depictions of the poor are rather clichéd. 1908 was a time when the suffragettes were in full flow and the state was starting to become more involved in social welfare, with the introduction of Old Age Pension and education for the poor. The book highlights some of the reasons why this was so necessary.
I enjoyed reading about the way the police conducted murder investigations back in 1908 in the days long before DNA profiling and complex forensic science. It is fascinating to see how their theories develop and you do feel as if you are getting inside the mind-sets of the officers and the police surgeon as they ponder the various possibilities. I found the contrast between Scotland Yard officers' 'modern' approach to policing and the sometimes amateurish methods of the local force quite amusing. Many of the Scotland Yard officers would have been old enough to remember the Jack the Ripper murders and would have better appreciated the importance of preservation of evidence.
I felt that this was a very well-observed account of the impact of such a shocking crime on a sleepy little village, showing the role played by idle gossip. The case illustrates the way that memory can become tainted after the event, the difference between what people claim to have seen and what they really did see. I found this interesting because of what I have learned about 'reconstructive memory' in psychology and its effect on the reliability of eyewitness testimony.
This is an interesting read but its inability to come to any definite conclusion makes for a slightly unsatisfactory ending. You are given a few possibilities to mull over, but don't end up feeling that you have enough information on which to make a firm decision. It is all speculation really. It's more a question of whether you think Charles Luard did it or not, than an attempt to pin down any other suspect. The way that the author has added fictional characters to the story feels like a bit of a cop out, especially as you don't find out until the epilogue who was real and who was invented. If you were hoping to actually gain some insight into a true crime, creating a few imaginary villains just confuses things.
I think this would be a good introduction for anyone who wanted to find out whether they liked the true crime genre before diving into a bigger book. Quite frankly though you could look up the Luard case online and inform yourself almost as well without spending any money at all. That said, this book is reasonably priced on Amazon at just £1.00 for a paperback with the Kindle copy being only 20p, so it will hardly break the bank. From my point of view, 20p is well worth paying to find out about an Edwardian murder mystery I haven't heard of before, even if it isn't the most compelling account. It would certainly pass an hour or so if you were on the train or something and it isn't a book that requires intense concentration.
As a sketch of a very different England, a world of stiff upper lips, outward shows of respectability and social and sexual inequality, it is quite thought-provoking, In fact, the shocking murder of Caroline Luard could almost be a metaphor for the destruction of a more innocent world as Britain drifted closer towards the calamitous Great War.
However, it certainly wasn't the most exciting crime book I have ever read and the blend of fact and fiction doesn't completely work, in my opinion. It wasn't gripping enough to compete with fictional period murder stories like Agatha Christie and it wasn't informative and analytical enough to compete with true crime stories. So falling midway between the two, it did leave me feeling a bit underwhelmed.