A little while back the author D E Meredith wrote this guest blog for the Virtual Victorian which reviewed Mr Briggs' Hat by Kate Colquhoun - a review that the VV thought well worth repeating, particularly now that the BBC has produced Murder on the Victorian Railway, a dramatised documentary which is based on Kate Colquhoun's fascinating book. The film link is live until March 6th.
Thomas Briggs was a thoroughly decent chap. A middle-aged banker, hard working, modest, and restrained, he was visiting a sick niece, as decent chaps were wont to do back in the days when bankers were good, on the evening of 9 July 1864. Little did he know, as he made his way home on the 9.45 Hackney-bound train in Carriage 69 on a warm summer evening, that his commuting days were over for good. Moments later, two bank clerks entered the same carriage to find it splattered with blood. But there was no sign of Mr Briggs except for a carmine smear on the window, an ivory-knobbed walking stick (“a life preserver”), an empty leather bag and a hat.
Thus begins Kate Colquhoun’s true crime Nineteenth Century thriller – Mr Briggs Hat - a fast moving, compulsive read. Ms Colquhoun’s research is impeccable, her knowledge of the mid Victorian period deftly handled. There’s not too much detail to weigh down the plot (and it is a plot, because this True Crime reads exactly like a novel), but not too little either. This is not the languid world of Mr Whicher, but the Victorian Age as I imagine it to be - fast moving, beset with rapid change, “a human awful wonder of God.”
London is beautifully wrought with its watercress fields along the railway lines set against the thick, fuggy air of the city, the push and shove of a new Industrialised Age, and the insatiable appetite of the burgeoning press. This was an age when literacy rates were soaring, and the public were reading newspapers voraciously, from the Penny Dreadfuls to the quality press, so that a cry of Bloody Murder and the killing of a respectable middle class banker quickly became a ‘hold the front page’ Sensation.
Before I bought and read Mr Briggs (ironically against the furore of the Leveson enquiry), I had the good fortune to be alerted to one of Ms Colquhoun’s talks via twitter, which was hosted by the National Archives at Kew. A passionate historian, her delivery on the work involved in writing Mr Briggs was assured and enthusiastic. The same can be said of her book.
Unlike many of her readers, I suspect, I knew this case already and thus the outcome. But despite this knowledge, the author kept me on the edge of my seat. A strange sensation then, that as the story moved forward with the pace of a steam train, I started to think to myself, hang on a moment, do I really know what happens? The whole “Did he or didn’t he approach,” to the unravelling of this story was so masterfully wrought, so poignant and heartfelt in places, that I started to doubt myself. Had I got it wrong? Where exactly was this story going? The evidence seemed so shaky, turning on the identity of not one hat, but two hats, the accused so unassuming and sympathetic. Was this trial heading for an almighty miscarriage of justice? Were the witnesses to the crime reliable or just damned liars?
And what about the accused? What about Muller, the German tailor who flees the country to America? His flight in turn adds a classic ‘chase’ dynamic to the story, as one of Britain’s first ever detectives, Inspector Tanner of Scotland Yard, pursues his quarry across the Atlantic Ocean – this in the days of sail boats so that all of England had to hold its breath before an arrest could be made.
Among all the excitement of the chase, I revelled in the quieter moments when we see Muller (after he’s incarcerated in Newgate) reading The Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield in his lonely cell. Ms Colquhoun has learnt from the Victorian sensibility she has studied so carefully and does pathos and melodrama extremely well. The book is infused with it.
From the author’s sympathetic descriptions of the accused, we learn Muller was a German migrant, far away from home, who worked hard, attended church regularly, and lived on meagre earnings. He doesn’t live up to the public’s expectations who are expecting a burly monster.
In gaol, his sister tries to reach him but is turned away. He is alone. He seems too small, too weak, too pathetic to be the notorious killer who could hurl a middle class gentleman from a first class carriage to his death.
I was particularly impressed not only by the sensitive rendering of Muller’s character but also by the evocation of the trial and the author’s handling of the execution towards the end of the book. I really felt I was walking in the footsteps of a dead man. Brilliant stuff!
As for dealing with the macro issues about The Victorians and the moral issues of the day, the author doesn’t disappoint. I pride myself on knowing quite a bit about the Nineteenth Century (I’ve read Darwin, John Ruskin, Harriet Martineau, heaps of Tennyson, Malthus etc) but as I read Mr Briggs Hat, I had to grab a pen quickly to highlight all sorts of quirky and useful information, relating to gaol conditions, New York during the American Civil War, wages and public transport, attitudes towards the police and of course, the raging debate on capital punishment.
This is a beautifully crafted and deeply unsettling book and made me very glad I live in an age when the death penalty is no more.