Stuck in the airport? Stuck with the in-laws? Feeling a bit murderous? Escape with this engrossing true (mainly unsolved) crime from Victorian England, with its roots in the American South.

Florence Chandler, every inch the southern belle, took a steamer from New York to Liverpool in 1880. Her gold-digging mother planned to shop her on the English market but she didn’t have to wait that long. On the trans-Atlantic crossing, Florence found a match in James Maybrick, a successful cotton merchant based in Liverpool.

FlorenceUnfortunately for them, neither was what they appeared. Maybrick’s company was struggling and Chandler was not the heiress to a significant fortune — the money with which James planned to shore up his business. Add to that the strain of living in a new country, with no friends or relations and the pressure of a husband 24 years her senior. It was not an auspicious start to a marriage.

James had a weak immune system. Or at least he seemed to. His hypochondriacal tendencies were well known and he would happily down all and sundry if it claimed to restore health. Confined to his room for a couple of weeks, James was at the mercy of his wife and the household servants to bring him food and medicine. After a flurry of nurses and conflicting diagnoses, James Maybrick died at just 51, seemingly from some kind of arsenical (or other caustic chemical) overdose. What no one could agree on was just how he received this slow, methodical dosing. There was enough mystery surrounding his death to warrant an inquest and there were a number of likely suspects, Florence being chief among them.

Colquhoun presents the events by stitching together police accounts, letters, diaries, newspaper stories and court documents. And as the reader scratches his head in befuddlement, the author is quick to provide contemporary context. Here she displays just how unmanaged the medicinal field was.

In the linen closet he turned up a bottle of light liquid with no label, also a dressing case belonging to Florence that contained a small quantity of white power and six white pills. From her dressing table he took lotions, laudanum and boxes of unlabelled crystals and from the pantry he carried off a bottle of vanilla essence. The sitting room, the spare room and the lavatory were picked over, revealing morphia bottles, more stained handkerchiefs, quinine pills, nux vomica solutions, Price’s glycerine, corn plasters, pill boxes, soda mint tablets, toothpastes and several empty bottles smeared with sediment.

In total, close to 120 items derived from almost thirty different chemists were collected from unconcealed spaces in the house. Florence’s dressing gown and the nightshirts worn by James during his final illness were added to mounting pile until the list ran to over eight carefully handwritten pages.

Every bottle, box, packet and stain would be tested, painstakingly, for poison. ~Pg. 131

The notes, index, bibliography and other entries take up about 70 pages in the back of the book, making it an exhaustive and compelling research document as well. Even for someone like me who is merely interested but not actively researching, I found the supplements diverting. A most impressive outing from Colquhoun.

Many thanks to Overlook for the review copy.

Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: Overlook Hardcover (October 15, 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 146830934X
ISBN-13: 978-1468309348
Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 1.4 inches

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