Kirkus Reviews QR Code


The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811

by T.A. Critchley & P.D. James

Pub Date: March 25th, 1986
ISBN: 0446679216
Publisher: Mysterious Press

A true tale of murder most foul in Regency London in which James' mystery-writing witchery is joined with Critchley's police history know-how. In December, 1811, seven members of two households were bludgeoned to death in the dock area of east London. The murders of Timothy Marr, his wife, 3(apple)-month-old baby and shopboy in Marr's Ratcliffe Highway drapery shop and second-floor lodgings sent a shockwave throughout England. Murder was rare at the time, especially within the sanctity of respect-able homes, and the death of an innocent babe raised specters of maniacal fiends stalking the blameless and unwary. The later massacre of John Williamson, his wife and female servant in their public house near Ratcliffe Highway fed rumors of a Popish Plot and impelled a terrified citizenry to arm themselves. Local authorities (there was no Metropolitan Police force at the time) had no idea how to proceed with a murder investigation. Rewards were posted, which netted droves of "suspects" fingered simply because they were Irish, foreign-born, had acted peculiarly, or had gotten bloodied in brawls. One of these was a good-looking, somewhat dandyish, sailor named John Williams, who had been drinking at Williamson's pub the night of the murder and who, when he returned to the nearby Pear Tree public house, had asked the man whose room he shared to blow out the candle (presumably to hide his bloody clothes). When it was learned that the maul (a ship carpenter's mallet) used in the Marr murders came from a tool chest stored at the Pear Tree, Williams became the prime suspect. While the authorities were assembling more (and mostly unconvincing) circumstantial evidence, Williams hanged himself in his solitary cell. After sifting through the available evidence, James and Critchley conclude that Williams was probably innocent; and, if guilty, had operated with an accomplice. They weigh the evidence against other more likely suspects and even consider the possibility of an innocent Williams being strangled, then hanged, by prison authorities. In this way, a besieged government could declare the case closed (sound familiar?) and a terrified and outraged populace could once more rest easy. This one's a winning combination: a spellbinding mystery replete with authentic historical minutiae, and a brooding, teeming early-19th-century locale.