Review published on February 20, 2018.
The murder of Allan Chapellow is arguably one of the strangest and most compelling cases in recent British legal history. An elderly and reclusive man, Chappelow lived in a dilapidated house in Hampstead, on a street where properties sell for millions. A writer, he had penned biographies of George Bernard Shaw, though he hadn’t produced much in his later years. Sadly, he was to meet a violent end, bludgeoned to death in his house, his body dripped in candle wax and buried under a heap of his own manuscripts. The man convicted of the murder, Wang Yam, is a Chinese immigrant who claims to be a descendent of Ren Bishi, a leading member of the Chinese Communist Party at the time of Mao. Indeed, the man Wang Yam claims is his grandfather was Mao’s right hand man. But what really sets this case apart, is that a section of the trial was heard in camera, behind closed doors, on the grounds of national security. Not only is this the first murder trial in UK history to be held partly in secret on the grounds of national security, but a remarkable court order is in place that prevents the media, not just from reporting why this might be, but from speculating as to the reasons behind it.
Harding’s interest in the story stems from the fact that he grew up on the street and knew the victim as the odd character who lived a few doors from him. An author and journalist, Harding has written for national newspapers and has published a number of titles on recent German history. I haven’t read any of his previous work myself, but they were well received. This is important because Blood on the Page has come in for some criticism.
In Blood on the Page, Harding details the murder, delves into Allan Chapellow’s life and that of Wang Yam, and follows the investigation to trial and eventual conviction. He details the various appeals that Wang Yam and his lawyers have mounted and tells us how he has acclimatised to prison life. In all of this he does a good job and he’s certainly talented as both a writer and biographer. Where this book falls down somewhat is in the injection of his own voice into the narrative, for throughout, Harding’s views and opinions come off the page to an unusual degree.
Wang Yam was convicted of Allan Chapellow’s murder on the strength of purely circumstantial evidence. There was no forensic evidence linking him to the crime scene. There was, however, compelling evidence – CCTV images for example – of him using Allan’s credit cards and accessing his bank accounts in the days after his death. Wang Yam claims that this was because he had fallen in with Chinese gangsters who had provided these to him and that he did not murder Allan. The problem with this, however, is that Wang Yam quickly proved himself to be a fantasist, at least he seems to have a difficult relationship with the truth. When questioned by the police, and later in court, he couldn’t identify the gangsters he was supposedly in hoc to. In fact, his whole life’s history appears to be uncertain, it’s not even clear that he’s telling the truth about being related to Ren Bishi.
That said, there is some evidence that he might be telling the truth about the murder of Allan Chapellow, or at least that we ought to pause before declaring him guilty. Apart from the fact that there was no forensics to tie him to the scene, cigarette butts littered the room that Allan’s body was found, the DNA from which matched neither Allen nor Wang Yam. A neighbour came forward to say that weeks after Wang Yam was jailed, he was threatened with a knife by a man on his doorstep rifling through his mail. While a witness gave evidence at his appeal that he had met a man matching Allan’s description, using the same name, cruising Hampstead Heath for sex. Might Allen have been murdered by someone else, perhaps someone he brought back from the Heath? If so, Wang Yam is only guilty of theft and fraud.
There are certainly questions to answer in this case and looming over it all is the national security concerns, whatever they might be, which led the trial to be heard, in part, in secrecy. We are likely never to know what these were, what they relate to, or how this knowledge might alter our understanding of the case. Some reviews have said this absence makes the author’s task impossible and that Blood on the Page suffers as a result. I think that’s unfair and that Harding has produced a compelling and readable account of the case regardless.
More problematic to my mind is his seeming determination to believe Wang Yam’s account. Again, other reviewers have accused Harding of naiveté, even gullibility. While this might be a little harsh, he does seem to be blind to Wang Yam’s deeply flawed character. To Harding’s great credit he recounts Wang Yam’s erraticism faithfully. For example, he tells us Wang Yam’s lawyers don’t believe much of what he said, while when he contacted his supposed cousin, she told him that Wang Yam was not related to her. But despite this, he presses on with his faith in his subject regardless. This is most apparent in these odd sections of the book at the end of each chapter, which he titles “case notes” where he outlines his thoughts as his investigations unfold. These are totally superfluous to the text as a whole and serve nothing more than to give the impression Harding’s a bit of a naïf.
In conclusion, this is a well-written book and a good account of a very strange case indeed. It’s a complicated case and this review can’t possibly do justice to all the evidence that Harding has marshalled, and to be fair to him, presented to the reader in a thoroughly readable and accessible manner. Wang Yam might or might not be innocent of Allen Chapellow’s murder and after reading this book I certainly have been left with some doubts. But equally, Harding’s is not a sympathetic portrayal. Wang Yam appears dishonest and a compulsive liar. While this in itself does not mean he’s guilty of murder, equally I did not reach the end of this title as sure as the author of his innocence.
James Pierson 3/5
Blood on the Page by Thomas Harding
William Heinemann 9781785151040 hbk Jan 2018
Literary Wonderlands by Laura Miller
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