A tale of two crimes: the first, an endlessly juicy mystery that captivated England in the late 18th century; the second, the tragedy of that fascinating episode being done in by lifeless prose.
History profs Andrew (Univ. of Guelph) and McGowen (Univ. of Oregon) dredge up a sordid affair that figures in few standard histories of England, and one that begs to be turned into a film: two 40-something twin brothers fall under the spell of a skillful courtesan who enlists them in trying to pass off a forged bond; caught in the act, the brothers are nearly let off by their would-be victims but protest their innocence a little too loudly; enter the constabulary, the judiciary, and the hangman. The tale, open-and-shut in the eyes of the presiding judge, turns out to be a bit more complicated: in exploring the case of the brothers Perreau and the beguiling Mrs. Rudd, the authors call forth conflicting testimonies, contemporary newspaper accounts marked by a loose regard for the facts, and the political climate in a time of colonial revolt and widespread anti-Scottish and anti-Semitic sentiment, all of which had bearing on the outcome. Andrew and McGowen are careful researchers, and they do a good job of elucidating the social history of the time and some of the Rashomonish qualities of Perreau/Rudd affair. Ultimately, however, their bloodless exposition overcomes the inherent interest of the story: “Although newspaper accounts dominated discussion of the case, they were supplemented by the several versions of events that appeared in pamphlet form”; “Although publishers expressed a general commitment to fairness, objectivity, and honesty, the conditions of publication militated against their realization”; “The actions undertaken to bring Mrs. Rudd to trial struck some as an abuse of power loaded with disturbing consequences for society.” And so on, until it all becomes such a bitter chore to read that only the most dogged student of the era will persist to the index.
In the hands of, say, Luc Sante, this tale of the London lowlife would have been gold. As it is, general readers should hold out for the movie.