Category: Books

The Back Doors to Death: Alfred Swaine Taylor talk at Highgate Cemetery – Thursday 20th September

Alfred Swaine Taylor, one of the most famous forensic scientists of his day, was laid to rest at Highgate Cemetery in north London in 1880.

At my talk, find out more about Taylor – his well-known and obscure cases, and his sidelines in photography and geology. Discover his impact on crime fiction and find out why Golden Age detective fiction author Dorothy L Sayers called his books “The Back Doors to Death.”

Tickets are on sale now at just £8 each (£6 for Highgate Cemetery volunteers).  Doors 7pm. Thursday 20th September 2018.

The Guardian’s Best summer books 2018, as picked by writers

I had absolutely no idea at first that Fatal Evidence appeared in the Guardian’s Best summer books, as picked by writers. I noticed I had a new follower on Twitter, had quick glance on their timeline and saw my name plus a link to the Guardian. Thinking I was either 1. dreaming or 2. misreading something crucial, I followed the link and discovered I wasn’t imagining it after all – there’s Jess Kidd, author of Himself and The Hoarder, recommending my book!

Screencap from the online article. The text on the screencap reads: Jess Kidd. I am rollicking through Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin, which is one of the funniest, most twisted and freshest things I’ve read in a long time. It follows the fortunes of Mona, who cleans houses and falls for a man she calls Mr Disgusting. Beagin combines deep compassion and irreverent humour to create characters with nasty, wonderful, human flaws. Helen Barrell’s Fatal Evidence, Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor and the Dawn of Forensic Science is an engrossing read. It follows the career of Taylor, a remarkable scientist who gave evidence at the trial of William Palmer, “The Rugeley Poisoner”, pioneered the study of forensic medicine and let Charles Dickens nose around his laboratory. Barrell explores Taylor’s (occassionally bizarre) cases, his public and private persona and his wide-ranging interests, which included geology and photography. Her description of the ways in which forensic experiments evolved is as fascinating as the courtroom dramas they accompanied.

At the risk of this turning into a nauseating #humblebrag, this was such a surprise, and it was a real treat to see Fatal Evidence in a national newspaper. Writing for an independent publisher, national newspapers seem like an impenetrable citadel. And it’s really lovely that another writer appreciated my work.

So thank you, Jess, and thank you, the Guardian.

And bravo all the other authors who got a mention too! My to read pile is now tottering in dangerous fashion.

Meet crime authors at Shrewsbury Waterstone’s

Meet crime authors from across the country at Shrewsbury Waterstone’s on Sunday 15th April from 2pm to 3.30pm. The branch is expanding its Crime Section, so to celebrate they have joined forces with the Crime Writers’ Association to bring you this Meet the Author speed-dating event. There’ll be fiction and true crime, an opportunity to talk to authors – and, of course, buy books.

Come and say hello! I will be in attendance with the shade of Alfred Swaine Taylor, whose most famous case – that of William Palmer, The Rugeley Poisoner – started with a poisoning in a Shrewsbury hostelry.

Find Shrewsbury Waterstone’s at 18-19 High Street, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, SY1 1SJ.

Alfred Swaine Taylor and The Poisoned Chocolates Case

Wonderful pulp cover of The Poisoned Chocolates Case, showing a woman in 1950s evening wear reaching for a chocolate.

It might seem odd to think that Alfred Swaine Taylor, who died in 1880, could have anything to do with Anthony Berkeley’s 1929 novel The Poisoned Chocolates Case – but he does.

I had already found references to Taylor’s books in some of Dorothy L Sayers’ work, so it wasn’t a surprise to find Taylor popping up once again in Berkeley’s novel as they’re both Golden Age authors who were acquainted with each other. In fact, before Taylor’s name was even mentioned in the book, my own knowledge of Taylor and poisons was piqued when the symptoms brought on by the poisoned chocolates was mentioned.

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that the poison used in the novel is nitrobenzene – it’s mentioned quite early on. And the title of the book does somewhat giveaway the fact that poison might be involved somewhere.

I first heard of nitrobenzene in researching Fatal Evidence – when the chemical compound was first discovered, Taylor sounded the alarm. It had many purposes but was often used as a flavouring and as a scent because it mimics bitter almonds. Now, bitter almonds contains the same active ingredient as Prussic acid, and if you eat vast numbers of apple pips, or the soft centre of pips from fruit such as cherries and peaches, you’ll be consuming poison. Nitrobenzene was a synthetic variant, but it was still dangerous.

As I read on, congratulating myself for already knowing rather a lot about nitrobenzene thanks to Taylor, who should be mentioned but Taylor himself? Or least, Taylor’s Medical Jurisprudence? The same book which Sayers refers to in her work.

Continue reading

Isolation in Iceland: thoughts on I Remember You

Having read Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s novel I Remember You (Ég man þig) and seen the film adaptation, I found myself thinking about the theme of isolation.

A group of three adults head from Reykjavík to a remote outcrop of the Westfjords where they plan to do up an abandoned house and set it up as a B&B. The house is one of a few scattered buildings in all that remains of the abandoned village of Heysteri. Although not an island, it can only be reached by boat as there’s no roads over the mountain. In summer, it’s busy with visitors who want to climb or walk the hills and mountains that surround the area, but come winter and you are entirely cut off and alone.

In Ísafjörður, a boat ride away, lives a psychiatrist whose son has disappeared. His marriage collapsed in the face of their family tragedy, and he endures emotional isolation. He’s started to see what is either an apparition or a hallucination of his missing son. And a local woman, who was obsessed with the boy’s disappearance, has hanged herself in a church – which, it just so happens, had been moved from Heysteri and rebuilt.

Sigurðardóttir usually writes crime fiction, but even her “straight” crime fiction contains supernatural elements, be they a character’s fascination with seventeenth-century witchcraft, or the legend of babies who can still be heard crying on the rocks where they were left to die of exposure. There’s lots to learn by osmosis about Icelandic history, culture and traditions in her work.

Continue reading

A trip to London

Reading the headstone of Taylor's parents in Northfleet, Kent

Reading a Taylor family headstone in the churchyard of Northfleet, Kent

Having travelled to Rugeley and to Edinburgh in pursuit of Alfred Swaine Taylor for my book Fatal Evidence, it was time to go to London and Kent. He was born in Northfleet, Kent, on the banks of the River Thames in 1806, and eventually moved to London, where he stayed for the rest of his life (trips back and forth to inquests and trials across England notwithstanding).

Continue reading

A trip to Rugeley

An artist’s rendering of William Palmer, from the Illustrated Times

One of Alfred Swaine Taylor‘s most famous cases was that of William Palmer, The Rugeley Poisoner. As I live in the West Midlands, Rugeley isn’t all that far from me, so I decided to pay the town a visit.

I felt rather awkward, because poor old Rugeley probably doesn’t want to be remembered for Palmer and his ‘orrible crimes. In 1856, as Palmer stood trial and the newspapers bulged with reports about him, journalists1)It’s thought that novelist Wilkie Collins was amongst them. were dispatched to the unassuming market town to write lurid pieces about the locality. The Illustrated Times helpfully published a special supplement, full of Rugeley scenes – some of which you will see in this very blog. Members of the public visited just to see the place they’d read so much about. The local vicar had so many people trudge to his churchyard to see where John Parsons Cook, one of Palmer’s victims, was buried that he paid for a gravestone, bearing moralising quotations from Scripture: Enter not into the path of the wicked.

As the town hall where the inquests took place has been rebuilt, the first place connected with Palmer that we arrived at was the Talbot pub. This was where Cook was poisoned, and where he died.2)I realise that some people don’t think Cook was murdered, but I am not of that opinion. We couldn’t go in as the pub – last called The Shrew – has closed down. However, directly opposite was Palmer’s house. Not that you can see very much it of these days – in Palmer’s time it had a front garden, but eventually the front was extended out to touch the road, and it’s been divided into two shops. You can get round the back though, and that view hasn’t changed all that much.

I walked back and forth between the pub and the shops a couple of times, to get a feel for Palmer’s own journeys, back and forth between his house and the man he killed. It’s not a vast distance at all, being only the width of the road. I paused, and looked up at the window of the room where Cook died. After writing Poison Panic, where poisoning victims died in cottages that are either long gone or can no longer be identified, it felt very strange to be able to almost come to the exact spot where the crime had taken place.

My partner, who takes many of the photos in my books, photographed the streetscene, and it’s interesting to compare Rugeley in 2016 with Rugeley in 1856. It’s not quite as busy as it was, and I somehow doubt the Union flag bunting is there to celebrate the spot where a famous British murder took place. At least, I hope not!

An engraving showing a bustling mid-19th century street scene.

Rugeley, 1856. The Talbot is on the left, and Palmer’s house is on the right, behind the railings.

A modern street scene.

The same scene in 2016, with the closed down Shrew pub on the left, and the two shops (a weightloss salon and a pet shop) on the right adapted from Palmer’s house.

The back of Palmer’s house, 1856.

The back of Palmer’s house, 2016.

Our next stop was the church of St Augustine, where John Parsons Cook is buried. A terrible sensation that I was intruding had haunted me since I got off the train, but once I saw that the information board outside the church actually tells visitors where to find Cook’s grave in the churchyard, I felt slightly less ghoulish for my interest.

Continue reading

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. It’s thought that novelist Wilkie Collins was amongst them.
2. I realise that some people don’t think Cook was murdered, but I am not of that opinion.

When “used” is “new”

A woodcut of a Victorian man in a chair reading.

My second book was published on Monday. The copies arrived with my publisher on the Friday before.

So imagine my surprise when, only a couple of days later, two third-party sellers on Amazon were selling copies “used – as new.”

This is physically impossible. There are no used copies, because readers and reviewers are still receiving their copies of the newly published books. So where are these “used” copies coming from?

This happened, too, with my first book, Poison Panic, which was published last year. Confused, I had contacted the sellers, and without replying to me, they changed their listings to “new”. At the time, I talked to my writing friends about it – the self-published authors I know find it particularly odd: “I haven’t even had my copies yet – where are they getting them from?!”

Continue reading

Who was R O Gilmore?

The frontispiece of the book showing the book's title, an engraving of showing the pub where John Parsons Cook died, and a stamp in the top right-hand corner which says R O Gilmore.

Ward and Lock’s “Illustrated and Unabridged edition of The Times report of the trial of William Palmer…”

Among the many adventures I had writing Alfred Swaine Taylor‘s biography, I decided to track down the previous owner of a book.

I work at a well-stocked library, and was able to borrow or consult most of the books I needed for my research. But I knew of two books on William Palmer which we don’t have, both of which were opportunistically cranked out by Ward and Lock just after the trial.

Their Illustrated Life and Career of William Palmer of Rugeley uses mainly old engravings which must have served time in many other books; only one of them isn’t a stock image, but is the portrait of William Palmer at the races which appeared in the Illustrated Times newspaper. The tale of Palmer is told in near-novelistic style.

Their other book, the frontispiece of which you can see above, contains transcripts of the trial at the Old Bailey, taken verbatim, and apparently nicked wholesale from The Times. It’s full of images which appeared in the Illustrated Times – which, despite the name, isn’t connected with The Times newspaper.

I managed to buy both books online, and most of the engravings in Fatal Evidence‘s plates section are from the Illustrated and Unabridged Edition. It’s a wonderful piece of history to have on my bookshelf, but I wondered, when I saw the neat owner’s stamp on the frontispiece, who was R O Gilmore?

A stamp in faux Gothic lettering, saying R O Gilmore.

The name inside the book

Continue reading