Little, Brown, £16.99, 380pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Mr Briggs' Hat, By Kate Colquhoun
Friday 20 May 2011
The railway industry began in 1830 with a death, when William Huskisson MP was run over by Stephenson's Rocket, but its first murder was not until 1864. It involved elderly banker Thomas Briggs boarding a first-class compartment in a suburban train at London's self-effacing Fenchurch Street on a summer evening; the foul deed was discovered at Hackney Wick.
This murder on the Leyton Orient Express was much more frightening than the "sensational" novels of Victorian times (and, later, the unconvincing yarns of Agatha Christie). For a start, it was true. And if blood could be spilled in the expensive part of a suburban carriage, no passenger could sleep soundly of a night. It preoccupied the press and the nation and became the talk of New York.
Like The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, Mr Briggs' Hat is such an enthralling account of a real-life mystery that it would be a hanging offence for a reviewer to betray the denouement. Arguably, the case remains a mystery. Here are some of the facts with which Inspector Tanner, one of Scotland Yard's finest, was faced.
After suffering a frenzied attack, Mr Briggs was shoved from the moving train. By an awful coincidence, it happened to be two of his junior colleagues who got on at Hackney Wick and entered his compartment, to be greeted by copious amounts of his blood – and a hat. This turned out to be someone else's hat. The murderer's? There was no sign of Briggs's posh headgear. Also missing was his gold watch-chain, which turned up in the shop of a City jeweller with the apposite name of Mr Death, who recalled it being brought by a customer with a foreign, perhaps German, accent.
Reports flooded in of likely suspects, ie men seen without hats. More useful was the statement of a Paddington cabman who declared that a former suitor of his sister-in-law had once owned what sounded exactly like the alien hat. The man's name was Müller; he was German. Then Mr Death recognised him from a photograph.
Inspector Tanner tracked down the suspect's lodgings but it was too late: Müller had caught a ship to North America. Tanner's only hope was to catch a faster boat and apprehend the suspect as he landed in New York. Back in London, what about the man who, refused a bank loan, had issued threats to Mr Briggs? And the three men, one of whom appeared very agitated, who had shared Mr Briggs' compartment? None of these resembled Müller.
Unlike some writers who attempt historical reconstructions, Kate Colquhoun steers safely between the twin perils of over- and over-confidence which litter many a historical reconstruction. Her well-told tale would stand up in court - unlike much of the evidence in the case.
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