It has all the makings of a Georgian era Agatha Christie novel — a house full of suspects, bizarre alibis, unsubstantiated timelines, inheritances, jealousy, and a bottle or two of poison.

When young soon-to-be baronet Theodosius Boughton dies unexpectedly one morning, a scandal erupts in the quiet countryside county of Warwickshire.  Although not in tip-top shape, Theodosius was certainly not ailing in such a way as to portend death.  What about the prescription that he complained “smelled of bitter almonds”?  Was he poisoned? Or an accident? Or something else entirely?

Between a domineering Lady of the house, a bitter chambermaid, and a troubled son-in-law, did someone poison the young heir?  Did the poor forensics after the fact obscure the true cause of death?

Exterior of All Saints' Church, Chadshunt, Warwickshire. Photo by Martin Beek (2006).
Exterior of All Saints’ Church, Chadshunt, Warwickshire. Photo by Martin Beek (2006).

Cooke is thorough.  She lines up court testimony, timelines, newspaper accounts, letters, and even John Donellan’s own treatise for his innocence.  Cooke painstakingly compares these notes and finds discrepancies in the outcome of the trial.

The Mail On Sunday compared it to Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.   It does have its similarities, but there is no narrator, as it were.  Mr Whicher, a respected policeman and detective, serves as a guide through the murder at Road Hill House.  With Cooke’s book we have no such character to turn to.  As such the reader feels a bit more abandoned among the myriad suppositions and theories.

Mr Whicher and John Donellan do both suffer somewhat from the dryness of the facts.  There is always a danger in presenting a case that academics can bog down the narrative.  This does happen a bit here.  For the most part it is forgivable, but about half way through the book there is one particularly rough patch where Cooke compares depositions with trial testimony and interjects her own suspicions.  In this section the narrative is nearly entirely lost and the story gets a bit hard to follow.

The case has been cited numerous times as an example of the failings of the judicial system, or of poor defense representation.  In effect, it has taken on a life of its own, especially in English courtroom history.  But by the time it reached the judge and jury, much of the case had already been decided.  Cooke adds the background with each ‘character’s’ history, heritage and personality.  She does her best to give the case context and perhaps shed new light on a scandalous trial.

Many thanks to the folks at Bloomsbury Press / Walker Books for the review copy.

*Now available in paperback*

Published: 10-02-2012
Format: Hardback
Edition: 1st
Extent: 304pgs
ISBN: 9780802779960
Imprint: Walker Books
Illustrations: 16p B&W ins.
Dimensions: 5 1/2″ x 8 1/4″
RRP: $25.00

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