Friday, August 3, 2012

Death Before Jack: The Maul and the Pear Tree (1971), by P.D. James and T.A. Critchley

P. D. James' one book-length excursion into true crime--The Maul and the Pear Tree: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811--has been reissued in Britain by James' English publisher, Faber and Faber, probably, one imagines, due to the resurgent popularity of English historical true crime after the surprise runaway success of Kate Summerscale's reconstruction of the Constance Kent murder case, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2008).

English historical true crime is hot right now, and authors are eagerly ransacking the historical record for juicy morsels of murder for the public to savor.  Thus it is not surprising that James' four-decades-old true crime opus is getting another go (the fact that last year was the 200th anniversary of the Ratcliffe Highway murders surely didn't hurt either).

Despite the common insistence that during the Golden Age of detective fiction only chess-like, emotionally arid puzzle problems interested British crime writers, in fact mystery authors of that era were fascinated by true crime.  Dorothy L. Sayers wrote about he Julia Wallace murder case, John Street about the Constance Kent case.  Numerous other instances can be given.

the most recent edition
So James' study, co-authored with a Home Office colleague, Thomas Alan Critchley (1919-1991), was hardly the first instance of a famous mystery writer taking a whack at true crime, and it certainly was not the last.  But, P. D. James being involved, The Maul and the Pear Tree is a notable study in the literature of true crime.

Although eclipsed by the Jack the Ripper murders that occurred at the end of the nineteenth century (1888), the Ratcliffe Highway killings that took place in the beginning of the nineteenth century shocked and appalled the British nation, just as the Whitechapel horrors did nearly eight decades later.

Three hundred miles from London, a much agitated rural correspondent wrote:

We in the country here are thinking and talking of nothing but the dreadful murders, which seem to bring a stigma, not merely on the police, but on the land we live in, and even our human nature.  No circumstances which did not concern myself ever disturbed me so much.

Even before the rise of 24-hour cable television, mass murder, with the helpful hand of the penny press, had the power to transfix a nation.

But what exactly happened in the month of December, 1811?  Over a short space of time in Ratcliffe Highway two households were obliterated in savage bursts of violence (though James and Critichley don't mention it, I was rather reminded of the Manson Gang killings, which took place in California in 1969, two years before Maul was published). 

Here is an interesting look, by the way, at what has happened in modern times to the locations associated with the crimes:

Mapping the Ratcliffe Highway Murders

First draper William Marr, his wife, infant son and a teenage shop boy were killed.  Then, a dozen days later, publican John Williamson, his wife and a woman servant were slain.

The murders were extremely brutal: the victims were bloodily battered by blunt instruments (a maul, or mallet, in the first household, an iron bar in the second) and their throats slit (the killing in its crib of a three month old baby, who of course could have identified no one, further demonstrates the savagery of the crime).

James and Critchley go to great length to show how the English law enforcement system of the time was too fragmented and disorganized to cope with such crimes.

As just one example, that the maul had tell-tale initials on it was not discovered for twelve days.  Had an elementary examination been made of the murder weapon at the time of its discovery, the Williamson couple and their servant likely would not have died.

There was a great public outcry over the murders and the inefficiency and delay of authority in finding answers.  Avowed the letter writer quoted above:

I have very long felt the necessity of an improved police....The police laws cannot be too rigorous; and the usual objection that a rigorous police is inconsistent with English liberty might easily be shown to be absurd.

the investigation relied heavily on handbills
Yet there was still a great deal of resistance as well to establishing a modern police force, which many people associated with the Napoleonic tyranny of England's direst enemy, France.  A metropolitan police force would not be organized in London until 1829.

James and Critchley also note the bigotry that infected the investigation, as, in classic fashion, suspicion of the mob ("the mob" often is referred to in this book) caused foreigners to be rounded up unjustly.

In parliament, Richard Brinsley Sheridan spoke witheringly on this subject:

"'Oh, who would do it but Portuguese?' was the general cry.  Prejudice, however, did not long stand still upon the Portuguese.  The next tribe of foreigners arraigned and convicted were the Irish...and it was nothing but an Irish murder and could have been done only by Irishmen!"

After the maul finally was identified, however, the investigation, such as it was, focused on the Pear Tree public house.  The maul came from a chest of tools left there by an absent sailor (those were his initials on it).  We are now presented with a classic detective novel situation, where a limited circle of suspects might have committed the crime.  Who had access to the chest?

Far more effective as a deterrent is the spectacle
of punishment on earth....
Authority alighted on one denizen of the Pear Tree as principal suspect.  He was arrested and soon conveniently found dead, hanged, in his prison cell. Everyone was pleased to accept the man's evident suicide as evidence of his guilt and the case was closed, aside from a desultory search for possible accomplices (surely the first group of killings, at least, could not have been accomplished entirely by one person).

Having cheated the gallows, as the saying goes, the suicide nevertheless was subjected to a public ceremony of punishment, as he was carted out along Ratcliffe Highway, thousands gathered to watch, to be buried at a crossroads, a stake driven through his heart.  I kid you not.

Authority's reasoning for staging this bizarre public spectacle is analyzed in Maul, in a classic Jamesian passage:

One might suppose that the advocates of capital punishment would appreciate a man who, recognizing the justice of his sentence, and accepting that only a life can compensate for a life, saves society the trouble and expense of an official ceremony and embraces his sentence so wholeheartedly that he executes judgment on himself.  But society has seldom seen it in that light....Few people had any doubt that Williams was now receiving his just deserts in the next world.  But the punishment of God, if sure, is invisible, and the contemplation of hell fire does little to assuage a lust for revenge. Far more effective as a deterrent is the spectacle of punishment on earth.

The formal and elegant cadence of this writing is unmistakable James, and an example of why her prose (classic English prose at its finest) has so many admirers.

But wait!  As in the best classic detective novels, in Maul James and Critchley spring a surprise, and inform us that authority almost certainly Got It All Wrong.  In the final fascinating chapters, they demolish the case against the supposedly guilty party and point their accusing fingers elsewhere.

Do they get it right?  It seemed a convincing construction to me (though one matter may be pushed a bit too far--interestingly, this part reminded me of the plot of James's novel An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, which came out the next year, in 1972).  Also, I still have trouble understanding the savagery of the crimes (why kill the baby).

For those who want more on this subject, check out Lloyd Shepherd's The English Monster (2012), a fictionalization of the case.  But don't neglect The Maul and the Pear Tree!


  1. I've always fancied reading this book, Curt, so I'm glad that it's been reissued by Faber. I'm adding it to my wish list. Thanks for the info.

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  3. Glad to be of service! I wish James had done more in true crime. She has the natural mind of an essayist, I think.