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.
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days
Oscar voter speaks outfilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The black and blue dress: Makers considering a white and gold version
- 2 Husband and wife die holding hands within hours of each other after 67 years of marriage
- 3 What color is The Dress, white and gold or blue and black? An eyewitness gives a definitive answer
- 4 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
- 5 Fearne Cotton quits Radio 1 after ten years for 'family and new adventures'
Seinfeld is laughing all the way to the bank: TV show generates $3.1bn in repeat fees since final episode
Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl: First look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Blade Runner sequel: Harrison Ford confirmed to return with Denis Villeneuve directing
All fiction follows one of six basic storylines, according to new research
House of Cards season 3 premiere, review: Has Frank Underwood gone soft?
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
Half of Ukip voters say they are prejudiced against people of other races
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
Aqsa Mahmood branded a 'disgrace' by her parents after claims she recruited three UK girls flying to Middle East
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia