Sentimental Murder by John Brewer

A crime of passion in fact and fiction
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Late in the evening of 7 April 1779, as the Earl of Sandwich's mistress Martha Ray left the Covent Garden Theatre and made her way towards her carriage, a young man pushed in front of her with a musket in each hand. Before anyone could react he shot her in the head, killing her instantly. He tried to shoot himself with the second musket, but botched the job and fell barely injured, beating his head with the empty barrel and yelling "o! kill me! ... for God's sake kill me!"

He was arrested (and later executed, thus getting his wish). Martha Ray's body was taken to a nearby inn for examination while, in the Admiralty lodgings where the couple lived, Lord Sandwich was woken and told the news - which at first he did not understand, thinking he was merely being informed of the content of a mischievous ballad sung outside his window.

The case attracted great interest, initially because of Sandwich's involvement and later because of the enigma surrounding the killer, a minister named James Hackman. He was clearly in love with his victim, but other details of his motivation were cloudy. According to him he had intended to shoot only himself, yet he could not explain his change of mind. The nature of their relationship was also a puzzle: Hackman claimed that they were lovers, but this was uncorroborated.

To this day the narrative remains full of gaps. As John Brewer puts it, however, "stories hate a hiatus", so over 150 years a variety of published versions moved in to fill the absence. Some were overtly fictional, some not; others were ingenious mixtures of the two. All revealed as much about their own inventors as about the events they claimed to relate.

This flow of stories, rather than the murder itself, is the real subject of Brewer's rich and significant book. He declines the traditional historian's goal of piecing together a master narrative; instead he focuses on the material's transformation through time. He shows how each retelling has been shaped by its era's dominant view of the 18th century, and by its own sense of itself in relation to that period.

The 18th century itself was no exception: it had its own self-image, revolving around notions of sentiment and sensibility. Thus contemporary accounts of the murder often presented it as a form of sentimental novel, a tragedy of love out of control: readers were expected to respond with feeling rather than judgement.

Hackman came to be imagined as a Romantic hero, a man tormented by "love's madness". By the 1840s, the perspective had changed and the murder was read in terms of 18th-century depravity, beyond which 19th-century culture congratulated itself on progressing. A new kind of sensationalism took over in the 20th century, with characters acting as "bundles of extreme feeling"; the case was even given a 1930s racist twist by novelist Constance Hagberg Wright, who presented the real villain as Sandwich's Tahitian guest Omai, a treacherous creature with "wild-beast eyes".

Novels occupy a good deal of Brewer's attention: most interestingly, he examines the crime's first fabulation in Herbert Croft's Love and Madness of 1780, a work masquerading as a collection of love letters by Hackman to Ray. As Brewer points out, few contemporaries would have been fooled, especially as "Hackman" breaks off for a 120-page meditation on the meaning of forgery.

Themes of fiction and authenticity are central to Brewer's own concerns, and inform his treatment of all the material - which is very wide-ranging indeed. There is so much in Sentimental Murder that any description can only be selective: chapters are devoted to political manipulation of the press, to the "untold stories" of Martha Ray and Sandwich, to a surprising link with Wordsworth, and much more.

Simon Schama has contributed a quote describing the book as a "thriller-cum-tale of passion"; this does it an injustice. Sentimental Murder eschews the headlong narrative approach, and generates a series of ripples radiating from the initial event. Each chapter adds a new element, yet all the time we are moving not closer to the truth, but further away. No new facts are revealed; we meet new metamorphoses, and are nudged into a fresh way of thinking about history and its sources. The result is more compelling than any thriller.

Sarah Bakewell's 'The Smart'' is published by Vintage