“Ooo yes, let’s do a series of book recommendations for the Twelve Days of Christmas,” we said.
But those 12 days of presents were really pretty weird. I mean, if a pear tree was small enough to give someone as a present, it wouldn’t be big enough for a partridge to perch in. A problem faced by the designer of the 1977 UK postage stamp, I notice. A solid bird, the partridge.
So our list is going to be associative, rather than literal, if you see what I mean. There is a connection, in our minds at least. But not always necessarily obvious.
DAY 1 BOOK
The Maul and the Pear Tree by P D James is a genuine oddity. For one thing, it’s not a novel. For another, she was co-author and, when it was first published, looked like the junior partner to T A Critchley, author of A History of Police in England and Wales 900 – 1966.
It was published in 1971, when PD James was still a civil servant in the Home Office, with responsibilities for Forensics. She had written three well-received detective novels featuring her iconic detective, policeman-poet Adam Dalgleish. But it wasn’t until that same year, 1971, that his fourth outing, in Shroud For a Nightingale proved her breakthrough to bestsellerdom. So the work that went into The Pear Tree looks like a real labour of love.
The book charts in exhaustive (and sometimes conflicting) detail what the authors uncovered in newspaper articles, public records and previously unpublished sources about the notorious Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811. Over 12 days in December of that year two families, including a baby, were bludgeoned to death. The maul of the title was the murder weapon, a sort of large hammer; The Pear Tree was a local pub and place of interest.
There was a public outcry. This area of Wapping was known to be dangerous, close to the docks where fights between sailors of all nationalities were common place. Only in October that year, the Home Secretary had written to the local magistrates, telling them to put an end to the fighting before someone was killed. But these murders were brutal and appeared unprovoked. After the second lot of murders, public panic ensued. According to the authors this led ultimately to the establishment of the first real police force.
WHY READ THE DAY 1 BOOK?
The early chapters on the circumstances of the dockside inhabitants and their businesses are masterly. The sheer muddle of the magistrates is enlightening, too, especially for anyone thinking of writing a murder mystery set in Regency times. There is a proposed alternative solution too — the magistrates decided that the guilty man was Johan Williams, who committed suicide in prison. The authors disagree.
A book to dip into, rather than read from cover to cover. But for creeping menace, Dickens himself couldn’t do better than many passages, especially in those early chapters.