Review published on September 5, 2017.
The Mile End Murder by Sinclair McKay is an exhaustive account of how a miscarriage of justice was likely visited upon a man who stood accused of the brutal murder of one Mary Emsly in 1860, and who is convicted based on circumstantial evidence and hanged in one of the last executions at Newgate. This crime, its sensational trial, and the resultant verdict caught the attention of Arthur Conan Doyle.
McKay takes this crime and sifts its evidence into a comprehensive account. It is well researched, well documented and faithful to the original enquiry. He has created an intelligently written historical account turning a glass to the context: the setting within which this occurred. He effectively hangs his story on the framework of the known facts – fleshing out the whys and the wherefores.
In this he takes on a daunting task. Historical crime fiction has only to have enough characters to drive the story forward. Whereas often in this historical account I admit I often struggled a bit to keep abreast of the characters and their relationships to each other. He keeps his prose crisp and when he stays on point his prose is at its most effective. The book creates a good sense of time, stirs a rich mixture of character and story. The accused’s backstory is a welcome and pertinent addition. And when the hearing takes place the book gets second wind.
My only criticism is that the historical context works and the facts – the documented facts of the characters and circumstances work. But the conjecture, the supposition which is used to immerse and place these characters into the known historical context, doesn’t so much. “He would likely have known” and “She should likely have been aware” I found jarring and detracting from the book’s strengths. In the last chapter McKay posits the actual murderer – working up a theory from the given evidence. Does the pay off pay off? The jury’s out.
An intelligently written historical account – but this book is at its best when it dwells in the study of fact instead of stepping into the realm of supposition.
Amanda Aldridge 3/4
The Mile End Murder by Sinclair McKay
Aurum Press Ltd 9781781316436 hbk Sep 2017
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