Crippen by John Boyne


I had to read this book for my book club and I’m really glad it was picked actually, because it’s not the kind of book that I’d have normally picked up to read for myself, but I actually ended up really enjoying it (although I did have some problems with it). It’s a novelisation of the pursuit and arrest of Hawley Crippen, a real-life murderer who was convicted and hanged after the dismembered remains of his wife were found buried under his cellar floor. He fled the country on a cruise ship with his mistress Ethel Le Neve, who was disguised as a boy, but the suspicious captain telegraphed Scotland Yard so that the police were ready and waiting for Crippen when the ship docked in Canada.

It was quite a silly book in a way, mainly in terms of characterisation which was wildly over the top (particularly for the upper class ladies), but it was enjoyable nonetheless. There is quite a daft twist towards the end which I really did not like at all, and I thought it was pretty ridiculous, but having said that there are people to this day who dispute whether Crippen was guilty and whether the body found was that of his wife or somebody else entirely (the head was never found). The idea of Ethel carrying the severed head in a hat box throughout the voyage seemed more far-fetched than even the daft limits of the novel could allow though. Surely it would start to smell? And why would she even hang on to the head anyway? As I said, it was quite a silly book. Despite that, I wasn’t expecting the twist, and it did result in me gasping audibly in public. I did think it was an interesting idea to portray Ethel as the murderer instead (and maybe she really was, who knows!), but I just didn’t find it believable in the way it was written. There was a lot of backtracking to explain how she went about it and I didn’t particularly enjoy this part of the narrative, I thought it seemed a bit clumsy and could have been handled in a better way. I also think there must have been some unaccounted for plot holes which the backtracking failed to explain, and I just felt that the explanation in general wasn’t believable.

One thing I should mention about Crippen is that it was extremely readable. I’m not quite sure what kind of age group it’s aimed at, but I got a young adult vibe from the style of John Boyne’s writing. He’s a good storyteller, but I wouldn’t exactly say his writing was sophisticated. That sounds really mean, but I did find the book to be really enjoyable and engaging (even if I was always trying to eat my lunch whenever it started to get gruesome). There was a lot of suspense created throughout, which I think has an awful lot to do with the fact that the story wasn’t told in chronological order. I think this was a good idea, because the story of Crippen is based on a real, famous murder case, and so I knew all along that the end result would be Crippen’s conviction and execution, but writing non-chronologically makes the story less predictable and creates tension while also delaying the inevitable. I can also understand why John Boyne included the curveball of changing the murderer, for the same reason that we think we know what’s going to happen throughout and it adds a different, more dramatic dimension to the story. It was a clever plan and it was quite effective, I just didn’t like the way he went about it. It also makes me a bit uncomfortable to see the blame placed on Ethel Le Neve when she was found not guilty of any involvement in the murder, especially considering that she only died in the 1960s and has surviving children who could potentially read Crippen. That unsettles me a bit, and it seems unfair to lay the blame on someone who was exonerated in the eyes of the law. But as I said previously, there are still people who believe that Hawley Crippen himself was not guilty, and after all this is a fictionalisation of the story and nothing more.

As I said, I normally wouldn’t have chosen to read this book myself because I’m not too keen on the idea of reading novelisations of real murder cases. I’m happy to read fictional murder mysteries and books about real murders that are presented in a more factual, evidence-supported way, but somewhere along the line the fictional aspect strikes me as being rather ghoulish. This is mainly why I had issues with the book, although the story itself (if you separate it from the real events) was generally quite gripping and fun to read. It’s not the best writing I’ve ever read and I did find aspects that were a bit laughable in places (especially the exaggerated character tropes), but it wasn’t a bad book by any means. I’m glad that I read it and I did enjoy it, but I’m not sure this type of real crime fiction genre is one that I’ll be dipping into again any time soon.

See previous Book Review featuring Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.


One thought on “Crippen by John Boyne

  1. Pingback: The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson – The Steel Review

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