Greenwich, 1871. On an unlit lane traversed by a brook, a policeman finds a young woman who has been so viciously beaten that she is barely recognisable as a human being. She later dies of her injuries. The brutality of the act, the ineptitude of police, and the rock-solid Victorian class system will lead to an enraged public, a highly-publicised trial and a string of endless, petty civil suits that will drag the case up again and again for decades afterwards. In choosing to appropriate the name of a dismal and deservedly-forgotten penny dreadful written about the case, author Paul Thomas Murphy seeks to reclaim this story for Jane Clouson, the victim, and to present to us the manifold ways in which this young, seventeen-year-old woman was failed by the society that should have protected her.
Paul Thomas Murphy falls into that category of likable historians who are able to tell the stories of the past with the skill of a novelist. His style is simple, captivating and idiot-proof without being simplistic, and from page one, all the way to the book’s ending, he demonstrates that he is as gifted a storyteller as he is a historian. Like all great writers, however, Murphy saves his pièce de résistance for last. While stating throughout the book that his aim is to lay bare ‘a monstrous failure of justice’ by telling Jane’s story and examining the chaotic aftermath of her death, he never blatantly reveals that he is going to end the book by applying modern forensic science to the case, and thus impart to us the tragic, awful extent to which police and judiciary failed to ensure that justice was done.
Murphy tells the story of Jane Clouson’s death in a linear, unambiguous fashion that allows him to clearly convey the ‘monstrous failure of justice’ that occurred on that night in 1871. In the first section of the book, which encompasses the days immediately after the murder and the police’s search for a suspect, Murphy meticulously examines R Division’s various acts of incompetence, including their failure to adequately protect the crime scene, and tendency to shove any evidence regarded as unimportant into a cupboard at Scotland Yard. We are also given detailed insight into the police’s struggle to identify Jane Clouson, their decision to charge epileptic printer’s son Edmund Pook with her murder, and the flimsy pretexts under which Pook was put on trial. The Pook family dynamic in all its oddity is revealed, as is the sheer nastiness and entitledness of Pook’s personality and his exploitative sexual relationship with Jane. Murphy uses this last point to demonstrate the plight of other girls who occupied the same position in service as Jane: a maid-of-all-work. He strengthens his argument that Jane was exploited in her employment by citing Mrs Beeton’s views on the responsibilities and treatment of maids-of-all-work in Victorian households. By using so well-known a source as Mrs Beeton, Murphy establishes how the crushing work load and ill treatment of maids-of-all-work were well-known and expected, and how nobody ever bothered to do anything about them.
Murphy’s account of Edmund Pook’s trial is scrupulously well-researched and told with just the right juxtaposition of suspense and clearly-conveyed facts. There are detailed, and sometimes very amusing insights into how the personalities and behaviour of the various solicitors and barristers influenced each step of the trial. Murphy intelligently takes the opportunity to place the trial within the greater context of Victorian true crime by discussing how other important trials taking place at the same time often had solicitors, barristers and magistrates in common with the trial of Edmund Pook. I particularly enjoyed the story of how both the magistrate and prosecution at Edmund Pook’s trial were the same unfortunate souls working on the trial of the Tichborne Claimant, the longest running and most destructively famous trial of the Victorian era. Committing to Pook’s trial was, effectively, a perverse way for these two men to give themselves a break from the Claimant’s histrionics until his trial resumed.
In the section of the book dealing with the post-trial period, Murphy gives a deliberately exhausting account of the endless civil suits brought by the Pooks’ solicitors against the publishers of controversial pamphlets about the case. This is an ingenious way of demonstrating the deplorable pettiness of a family seeking the vengeance of the Furies for the character assassination of their darling, thoroughly detestable son, and their stupid refusal to see that keeping themselves in the public eye was not going to make anyone hate them less. And they were hated. Murphy masterfully recreates the public disorder after the trial; how crowds gathered nightly in front of the Pook house and on one occasion, nearly lynched their solicitor. By focusing on public violence and indignation, Murphy succeeds in conveying both the wrath and the solidarity of Jane’s community, and how their desperation translated into the kind of violence that would also prevail during the Jack the Ripper murders a generation later.
It is in the final part of the book that Murphy truly pulls out all the stops by using modern forensic methods to tell the final, devastating truth about the murder of Jane Clouson. After a fascinating account of how Jane’s clothes were kept and then lost by staff at the fascinating-sounding Black Museum at Scotland Yard, Murphy examines the detailed reports produced by Doctor Letheby, the groundbreaking blood specialist who analysed Edmund Pook’s clothes for the trial. By applying modern forensic knowledge on the implications of different types of blood spatter to the pattern of blood found on Pook’s clothes, Murphy is able to conclusively prove whether Edmund Pook was innocent, if unpleasant, or a cold-blooded, conscienceless murderer. It is a masterful achievement, particularly if one considers that the usual suspect for pulling such rabbits out of hats, DNA, does not come into the question at all. Furthermore, Murphy refuses to sit on the fence of ‘might’ or ‘possibly’ or ‘there’s a 99.5% chance’ in his conclusion. Refreshingly, he chooses to stand by his work and his vision, and in doing so, achieves the book’s goal of reclaiming Jane’s story and gifting it back to her.
With shades of Kate Summerscale about it, Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane is top-shelf Victorian true crime that will please both novices and aficionados. The book is logical, but never clinical; detailed, but never boring, and the heart of its analysis of a tragic, detestable crime is undoubtedly, unreservedly, human.