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Dancing for the Hangman is a novel depicting real events in the sensational case of Dr. Crippen and is mostly a fictitious first case account by Dr. Crippen about his life, times and trials. The book is written by Martin Edwards who uses his skills as an investigator to weave a story about the meek mannered American doctor killing his overbearing bossy fat wife Cora Crippen.
The real Dr. Crippen
Hawley Crippen was a quack doctor who came from America to work for a company which made homeopathic remedies for the more gullible in the populace. A short man with an enormous moustache he was married to a overbearing fussy women called Cora who had designs on being a Vaudeville star, the marriage was troubled by Cora's drinking, bullying and dalliances with handsome men. Crippen had his head turned by his secretary Ethel La Neve and killed his wife presumably by poison, weaving a story of Cora returning to America he is visited by Inspector Dew who accepts his story. Dew returns to the house two days later and discovers remains in the coal shed, a tip from a ship's captain about suspisions he has over a father and son travelling couple meant that Dew jumped on a faster ship and arrests Crippen on board before Crippens ship docked. Crippen never admitted the charge and protested his innocence but ensured that La Neve was given no sentence and he was hanged about 3 months later. The cold calculating murder and escape before capture captured the public imagination especially as the chase of Dew was followed in the press and his arrest was headline news.
The book begins with Crippen sitting in his cell a few days before his date with the hangman and begins with his belief he will be either acquitted or at least the sentence watered down to imprisonment. After his maudlin thoughts he starts a tale over his life starting with his early days in America, his early jobs and his first meeting with Cora. The book is split into chapters in which the first section starts with Crippen in prison and progresses as the date with the hangman comes closer, then slips back into Crippens personal history and we follow the story in the words of Crippen. The book is a first person perspective of the events and is solely from the fictitious thoughts of Crippen, the author casts Crippen as an intelligent thoughtful man who is a little weak, ambitious to a degree and dominated by his wife. Crippen comes across as a man who always sees the glass half full and believes the best in other people even when the events differ from his hopes.
The prolonged monologue works to a degree and the character of Crippen is a fascinating one, Edwards is firmly on the side of the put upon husband and writes the character with a strong sense of sympathy for his actions. Cora the overbearing wife is given a snipping snide voice and her character is one of greedy dominatrix using Crippen as a cash cow for her flagging singing career. La Neve the other main character is given little voice in the book, cast as the young pretty thing caught up in terrible events she is the catalyst for the events but not responsible.
The book does wander at times, the years before LA Neve and the subsequent murder is a little slow perhaps because the reader knows what is just around the corner, the murder itself is another attempt to exonerate Crippen and casts him as the cause but the murder as an accident. The best chapter of the book is in a macabre way the description of the machinations of how Crippen dispossess of the body.
Overall this is an enjoyable novel, the placing of an author's words in a real live persons mouth is one which sometimes works and sometimes feels strange. However, here the author just picks the right tone for the slightly haughty quiet well-mannered hen pecked murderer Crippen and the writer wants the reader to be on the side of this person who wants the best but tends to be disappointed.
The book ends and goes right to the end of the story with the hanging of Crippen, it of course fills in the what happens next to the main characters and leaves as impression of a man caught in a position where what he thought he was getting turned into something he didn't want and he did something terrible to get out of the problem little thinking it would end with the hangman's noose.