Abacus £8.99 (341pp). £8.54 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Mr Briggs' Hat, By Kate Colquhoun
"A Sensational Account of Britain's First Railway Murder," declares the cover in the manner of a 19th-century penny dreadful. In fact, this book, stemming from the bludgeoning of respectable banker Thomas Briggs in a closed compartment on the evening of 9 July 1864, is anything but sensational. Kate Colquhoun's irreproachable unpicking of the case is meticulous, patient, thorough and measured. A real-life police procedural of the highest order, it provides a picture of Victorian society as vivid and detailed as WP Frith's painting of Paddington Station in 1862.
Yet the case was sensational. The first murder on Britain's new railway system was made more shocking since it took place in a first-class carriage. Public interest was galvanised when Detective Inspector Richard Tanner pursued the putative killer's boat across the Atlantic. New York was also swept up by the arrest of German tailor Francis Muller, who had the misfortune to arrive after his pursuers. When Muller's humble effects turned out to include damning circumstantial evidence in the form of Briggs's gold watch chain and silk top hat, the accusation of cab driver Jonathan Matthews appeared justified.
"Muller the murderer," crowed the British press in a manner familiar from our own time. Yet there were doubts from the start. "It is a strange story," declared The Times, "but the strangest part is the disproportion of the audacious enormity of the crime and the feebleness of the attempt to escape its consequences." When the case came to court, the evidence turned out to be less conclusive than first appeared. Defence counsel produced similar toppers, bought on the second-hand market. Muller claimed he bought the chain on the docks before leaving London. No murder weapon was ever found. The cabbie Matthews proved in desperate need of the £300 reward, while an unshakable witness insisted that he had seen two men in the train compartment, both unlike Muller, with Briggs.
Colquhoun brilliantly elucidates every aspect of this distant shocker, from sweatshops (20,000 stitches required for every shirt) to London's 700 pawnshops (5,000 pledges a month). A cab drive across London is described with a vividness that surpasses anything in Sherlock Holmes. But the figure indelibly imprinted on the reader's mind is Muller. We can see him in the Old Bailey dock: tiny, dignified, moved to tears by the smallest acts of kindness, polite even when condemned.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Alan Rickman admits editing 'terrible' script with friends in Pizza Hut behind backs of writers on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
- 2 Rarest Beanie Baby of them all could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 3 Professional big game hunter Ian Gibson crushed to death by elephant during hunt
- 4 Farmer told to tear down mock-Tudor castle after hiding construction behind hay bales
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Doctor Who film will definitely happen, leaked Sony emails reveal
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
Glastonbury 2015 tickets: How to make sure you’re successful in Sunday's re-sale
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling