1. The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders
Dozens of Victorian murders here as Flanders, the leading current historian of Victorian life, compellingly details how and why horrible murder became such an obsession for the public through the contemporary press. The famous cases are all here: William Corder and the murder in the red barn, Frederick and Maria Manning who buried Mrs Manning’s lover under the kitchen floor of their flat in Bermondsey in 1849, and Madeleine Smith who poisoned her lover in Glasgow and got away with it. Fascinating social history, brilliantly told.
2. Go Down Together by Jeff Guinn
There have been many books about Bonnie and Clyde: this one combines detailed and punctilious research with a compulsive narrative drive. Guinn traced everyone who had ever met the two Texan punks, killing many myths – not least those propagated by the famous film – on the way. Turns out they were smelly, incompetent teenagers, not a bit like Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty.
3. Public Enemies by Bryan Burrough
On the subject of 1930s gangsters, Burrough’s fascinating book takes in the whole range: the suave, rather charming John Dillinger, the boastful, incompetent Machine Gun Kelly – American villains have all the best nicknames – the moronic Barker gang, Pretty Boy Floyd and the psychotic Babyface Nelson. It’s a wonder anyone survived the tommy-gun era – and most of them didn’t. Burrough and Guinn are from a new generation of serious American popular historians examining the place of crime in American history: Michael Wallis and T.J. Stiles are others.
4. Famous Trials of Marshall Hall by Edward Marjoribanks
If you needed a barrister to defend you for your life in the years 1900-1927, Marshall Hall was your man. Florid in style, dramatic in delivery, he entertained and thrilled juries – and often got his clients off. Marjoribanks was a junior barrister who died young – but not before he had compiled this definitive account of all his hero’s famous cases, from the Camden Town Murder to Madame Fahmy and the crime of passion at the Savoy Hotel. Marshall Hall was the model for all those fictional lawyers who triumph against the odds – including Rumpole of the Bailey.
5. Ten Rillington Place by Ludovic Kennedy
Ludovic Kennedy specialised in righting miscarriages of justice, none more so than in this seminal book about Timothy Evans, hanged in 1950 or the murders of his wife and baby, crimes which were actually carried out by his sociopathic landlord Reginald Christie who was subsequently executed himself three years later for a series of unrelated sex murders. The book is hard to read, but compelling. It prised open official reluctance to admit that Evans had been wrongfully convicted. It is admirable, forensic journalism which can be claimed to have cleared a man, albeit much too late to save his life.
The Poisoner by Stephen Bates is out now from Gerald Duckworth & Co.