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.
BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital moveTV
Final Top Gear reviewTV
FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets
Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Tunisia hotel attack: Locals form 'human shield' to protect hotel from gunman Seifeddine Rezgui
- 2 Greece crisis: Alexis Tsipras accepts troika bailout proposals with conditions
- 3 German ethics council calls for incest between siblings to be legalised by Government
- 4 French woman dies in freak bungee jumping accident
- 5 Facebook rainbow profile pictures likely being tracked by social network
Glastonbury 2015: The best bits you missed from Lionel Richie and the Dalai Lama to The Libertines' secret set
Glastonbury 2015: The picture of a man crowd surfing in a wheelchair is brilliant, but it wasn't taken at Glastonbury
Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James' Twitter Q&A didn't exactly go as planned
Guillaume Tell gang-rape scene causes uproar at the Royal Opera House
Glastonbury 2015: Shocking scenes of rubbish left strewn across campsite as clean-up begins
The moment a Queen's Guard soldier lost it and drew his gun at annoying tourist
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Pentagon accuses Russia of 'playing with fire' over nuclear threats towards Nato
They are neither a 'state' nor 'Islamic': Why we shouldn't call them Isis, Isil or IS