One morning in November 1856 George Little, the chief cashier of the Broadstone railway terminus in Dublin, was found dead, lying in a pool of blood beneath his desk. His head had been almost severed; a knife lay nearby, but strangely the office door was locked, apparently from the inside. This was a deed of almost unheard-of brutality for the peaceful Irish capital: while violent crime was commonplace in Victorian London, the courts of Dublin had not convicted a single murderer in more than thirty years.
From the first day of the police investigation it was apparent that this was no ordinary case. Detectives struggled to understand how the killer could have entered and then escaped from a locked room, and why thousands of pounds in gold and silver had been left untouched at the scene of the crime.
Three of Scotland Yard’s most celebrated sleuths were summoned to assist the enquiry, but all returned to London baffled. It was left to Superintendent Augustus Guy, the head of Ireland’s first detective force, to unravel the mystery.
Five suspects were arrested and released, with every step of the salacious case followed by the press, clamouring for answers. Under intense public scrutiny, Superintendent Guy found himself blocked at almost every turn. But then a local woman came forward, claiming to know the murderer….
Writer and historian Thomas Morris’ latest book, The Dublin Railway Murder, takes the reader back to Victorian Dublin, and into the offices of the West Midland Railway Company. The year is 1856 and, on a cold November morning, Chief Cashier George Little has been round brutally murdered within an apparently sealed room at the company’s Broadstone terminus.
The investigation into the mild-mannered and diligent cashier’s death will take several months, involve five arrests, baffle detectives from two police forces, and grip both the city’s populace and its press. When a local woman comes forward with crucial evidence, the case takes a sharp and unexpected turn – but her own relationship to the murderer may prove to be the investigation’s undoing.
The Dublin Railway Murder is a fascinating account of a perplexing police investigation that has been meticulously researched by Thomas Morris. Told in a narrative style that will be familiar to fans of Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Kate Colquhoun’s Mr Briggs’ Hat, Morris’ account contains all of the detail one might expect from a history but with the pace and drive of fiction. The extraordinarily detailed archive of governmental documents that Morris has worked from has allowed him to recreate conversations, court appearances, interviews, and witness statements, and to paint a detailed picture of the Broadstone terminus – and of Dublin society – as it appeared in 1856.
Such attention to detail may frustrate some readers – especially as the narrative follows the police investigation down various dead-ends before really gearing up with the discovery of a revelatory witness and the discovery of items taken from the crime scene – but, personally, I loved the way that the small details of the investigation provided a picture of the imperfect art of detection. Various flaws in the investigation combine with legal complications to show the evolution of policing methodology, whilst the relationship between the police, the press, and the public immediately invites comparisons with the modern reportage of crime today; opening up questions about how both victims and suspects are represented, as well as about the role of the press both in garnering information and spreading unsubstantiated yet salacious rumour.
The investigation also touches, albeit quiet briefly, upon the epidemic of corporate fraud and embezzlement that seemed to be taking place in the 1850s – and how new technologies and vast, networked companies such as the railway firms were at particular risk of this. Morris also examines the tensions between the Dublin police force, seen by many Irish people as representatives of – and spies for – a repressive British state, and the working populace of the city, tying the investigation into many of the wider political and social contexts of the period.
In a final twist, the aftermath of the investigation and subsequent trial also sees the involvement of a popular branch of Victorian ‘science’, with the arrival of phrenologist Frederick Bridges – a man who theorised that murderers could be identified by the shape of their skull. This final section, although quite distinct from the relatively procedural narrative of murder/investigation/trial that comes before it, makes for a strange yet fascinating conclusion to an already perplexing narrative – and demonstrates the extent to which new ‘science’ was beginning, for both better and worse, to influence both policing, legal methodology, and political thought during this period.
Meticulously researched whilst remaining eminently readable, The Dublin Railway Murder is a must read for all fans of historical true crime – fans of Summerscale and Colquhoun’s books should definitely get this one on their Christmas lists, whilst fans of fictional police procedurals looking to make the leap into true crime are also sure to find that the detail of this fascinating yet flawed historical investigation makes for a compelling and thrilling read.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 24 November 2021 so check out the other stops for more reviews and content!
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