Friday, 9 May 2014

"A murder mystery that captivated the nation"

Academic reviews, by nature, take a little while to start appearing.

I've already noted a few reviews from history journals of my last book, The Most Remarkable Woman in England: Poison, Celebrity and the Trials of Beatrice Pace which appeared at the end of last year. I've just noted that two others have appeared.

Happily, they both say very nice things about the book, though they focus on different things.

In Women's History Review, a review by Caitriona Clear is currently appearing as 'advance access' online (meaning that it hasn't yet appeared in the print version).

Clear focuses on, and largely summarises, the dramatic story aspects of the Pace case. She calls the book a 'page-turner' and observes:

In telling this story, [Wood] references all the main authorities and rehearses all the arguments of gender history and British social history in the inter-war period. He does this so skilfully that there is no sense of being dragged away from the scene of the crime to listen to teacher. Nor does he shy away from speculating about what really happened to Harry Pace. 

Clear, however, finds my suggestion that Harry Pace may have killed himself via arsenic poisoning to be 'baffling'.

My actual argument about Harry's death is a bit different than she describes; however, this is one of those things where I would definitely encourage people to read the book and make up their own minds.

In the current issue of Crime, Media, Culture, Lucy Williams (who is herself a specialist on the history of women and crime) writes:

John Carter Wood's The Most Remarkable Woman in England  may at first seem little more than historical coverage of a real-life whodunit mystery, but this impressive scholarly work quickly shows the trial of Beatrice Pace to be a landmark court case--socially, culturally, and legally. ...

In a fascinating display of meticulously collected evidence, Wood at first draws the reader in to ask 'who killed Harry Pace?', but the real triumph of this book is the seamless way in which the author unravels the social and cultural impact of the case as the evidence and hearsay surrounding the murder mounted.

Quickly, The Most Remarkable Woman in England becomes not about the guilt or innocence of Beatrice Pace in the death of her husband, but a series of more complex questions for the reader to consider. These relate both to situating the case as a product of its time and in thus reading its significance, and also in evaluating the role which the media played in constructing well-defined personae for both harry and Beatrice Pace, as well as the extent to which this influenced public reaction to the trial. ...

In analysing the Pace case, John Carter Wood offers an in-depth exploration of attitudes towards inter-war crime, gender, media sensation and criminal justice, and at the same time delivers a comprehensive overview of a murder mystery that captivated the nation. 

Many thanks to both reviewers for the careful readings and positive verdicts.

A complete list of reviews can be found here

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Own a piece of Pace-case history...for only about £3 million

It has been announced that Gloucester Prison is now up for sale.

As the Gloucester Citizen reported today:

As a 3.5-acre brownfield site it could be worth more than £3million but its unique character could drive the price down – 122 bodies lie beneath it and its uses could be constrained by its history.

The Debtors’ Prison became a cell block on the west side and is Grade II listed, meaning the interior is protected too.

The oldest part, which retains features from the 1791 prison, is also listed.

Among other illustrious guests, Beatrice Pace was held in the prison during her trial in Gloucester in July 1928.

Here is an aerial image of the prison, coincidentally also taken in 1928, which also shows the Shire Hall, where the trial was held.

Source: Britain from Above

It's certainly a rather different way of getting on the property ladder.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 12

Concluding my pre-Christmas round-up of reviews of my book over the past year or so...

There has been no particular ranking of the reviews in this list; however, the excellent review The Most Remarkable Woman in England received from Tessa Hadley at the Guardian is one of my favourites.

This is not only because it was a particularly high profile positive review, but also because Hadley praised precisely some of the things that worked very hard to achieve in the book, such as capturing both a sense of drama and the authentic details of the language used by various figures in the case.

The image of the crowd outside the Pace trial used in the Guardian review
It really is hard for me to imagine a better opening line to a review of my book: 

'Sometimes life is better than fiction.'

I mean...really. That's a great start.

And then it just gets better from there:

'Is there any novelist who could have got this extraordinary story so perfectly right, inventing it: the violence at the heart of it, the suspense, the succession of revelations, the passions so raw and inchoate that they have a mythic force? And then there's the grand sweep of the narrative, beginning in the bleak poverty of an obscure cottage in the Forest of Dean, acted out finally on the national stage. [...] John Carter Wood's book about the Pace trial works because of his sober and scrupulous assembly of the evidence, quoting the words that were spoken and written at the time so we can feel the textures of the material for ourselves – the found poetry of precise reportage.'

The rest of the review is very well worth reading.

Perhaps it -- or the other reviews that I've considered in this series -- will convince you to take a closer look at The Most Remarkable Woman in England.

And whether you do or don't: Merry Christmas!

Friday, 20 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 11

One of the highlights of the period shortly after the publication of The Most Remarkable Woman in England last year was being interviewed on BBC Radio 4's venerable show 'Woman's Hour'.

I had never previously been interviewed on radio before (though there were several years in an earlier life when I had radio shows of my own on minor, local stations, but that's another story).

Moreover, it was certainly exciting to actually enter what has long been one of my favourite buildings in London: Broadcasting House.

Although there had been some preparatory discussion with the show's producers about possible topics, I went into the interview with Jenni Murray without really knowing what I would be asked.

So I was certainly fairly keyed up when I got into the studio.

Jenni Murray, though, is a very skilled interviewer: although she makes it seem easy, she manages to ask very well crafted questions and to subtly shape the discussion.

As interviewee, I had the sense of being offered a very well-defined space to fill. This all helped me to stay succinct and not begin endlessly waffling on, as is occasionally...well, OK, wont.

As to the interview, you can judge for yourself: my segment is still available from the BBC Radio 4 website.

In the brief period of time we had to chat after the interview, Jenni said some very nice things to me about the book. I asked later whether she might be willing to make a public summary of those statements, and she agreed.

So, she described The Most Remarkable Woman as:

'A fascinating analysis of one woman's domestic disaster, the power of the press and public opinion. Loved it!' 

The whole experience was very rewarding (also for getting the chance to chat with Martha Wainwright who gave a live performance on that show); the same can be said about my second BBC interview, with Anna King for BBC Radio Gloucestershire.

Sadly, though, that one is no longer online.

So if you can't quite get enough of hearing my voice, I suppose you're out of luck.


The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 10

Continuing my pre-Christmas round-up of reviews of my book over the past year...

Another one of the more academic reviews of The Most Remarkable Woman in England appeared at the open-access crime history journal Law, Crime and History.

There, Tony Ward opened his review of my book with a striking comparison to a television crime drama:

I started reading this book on the evening when the TV crime drama Broadchurch reached its finale, and the parallels are readily apparent: a suspicious death in a small community brings family conflicts to the surface, rumours abound, an arrogant policeman from London comes to investigate, the national press scent a good story, and the family of the deceased find themselves briefly famous.

Ward concludes:

The Most Remarkable Woman in England is a scholarly book and Wood resists any temptation to ‘solve’ the case, though he argues that the suicide theory was plausible and Beatrice was rightly acquitted. He urges historians to take ‘into account both those women who were demonised by the public and unfairly condemned and those who received public support and were – all things considered – treated fairly’ (195). In this respect his work usefully complements studies of women convicted of murder, such as Anette Balinger’s Dead Woman Walking (2000). But if one sees early twentieth century murder trials as a kind of morality play in which the moral invariably serves to reinforce the subordination of women, Beatrice Pace’s trial fits the mould as well as any of those that sent women to the gallows. -- Law, Crime and History, 3.2 (2013), 193-94. (PDF version of the full review)

Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 9

Continuing my pre-Christmas round-up of reviews of my book over the past year...

The issue of attitudes toward gender in the 1920s is a central issue in The Most Remarkable Woman in England, hence it's been gratifying to see the book receiving positive comments from historians experienced in that field. 

At Gender & History, Gwyneth Nair (co-author of a book on the Victorian poisoning murder trial of Madeleine Smith) thought that the book could have emphasised analysis more than narrative, and she suggests that I might have made more comparisons of the Pace case with even more trials of women than I do.

Nonetheless, she concludes that The Most Remarkable Woman in England is

'a thoughtful, readable account of an intriguing case, and has valuable things to say about the nature of interwar English society.' (Gender & History, 25.2 (2013), 385-86.)

I hope to have more to say about the issue of inter-war gender, as I'm currently reading Lucy Bland's fascinating book Modern Women on Trial.

We'll see how the Christmas season goes, time-wise....

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 8.

Among the various academic reviews that have appeared of The Most Remarkable Woman in England, that by Matthew Houlbrook was especially nice:

What became known as the ‘Fetter Hill mystery’ was one of the most sensational criminal cases of the 1920s. Then ‘still relatively new’, the media frenzy that surrounded Beatrice Pace allows John Carter Wood to tease out an engaging and suggestive analysis of the relationship between crime, culture, and politics in a formative historical period (5). The Most Remarkable Woman in England draws on an impressive body of archival research: an extensive survey of local and national newspapers, records of courts, coroners, and police, and (most strikingly) the hundreds of letters Pace received from her supporters at the trial’s conclusion. The result is a rich and textured archeology of a case that unfolded as much through new forms of mass media as the institutions of criminal justice. If the detail sometimes becomes overwhelming, it is hard to imagine a more thorough account of the processes through which crime became news.  (Media History, 19.3 (2013), 391-92.)

I've never met Matthew, but he's the author of some excellent things about crime, media and sexuality in early twentieth-century Britain, so he knows whereof he speaks.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 7

Among the positive reviews The Most Remarkable Woman in England received was one in the Literary Review from historian Dominic Sandbrook (probably known best recently for his books on 1970s Britain and a number of BBC television documentaries).

There is no version of it online, however, I have a few excerpts below. 

Among other things Sandbrook observes: 

Today, of course, Beatrice Pace is almost completely forgotten. It is to John Carter Wood’s credit, therefore, that in this splendid piece of historical detective work he not only brings her story alive but casts new light on the life of England in the 1920s, a land desperate to return to normality after the First World War, but terrified of the demons lurking in the attic.
Like Kate Summerscale’s prizewinning book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Wood’s account is an engrossing exercise in historical reconstruction, slowly peeling back layer upon layer of the story of Harry and Beatrice Pace.
Wood’s achievement is to use the case to explore the troubled world of the mid-1920s, a period when, as the Daily Herald remarked, ‘nine people out of ten follow the meagre official details and the billowing rumours of an actual murder mystery more eagerly and breathlessly than the most devoted detective “fan.”’
Wood thinks the jury came to the right verdict, though it is a measure of his immaculately researched, fluently written and utterly compelling book that he allows readers to come to their own conclusions. For my own part, I rather think there was more to Beatrice Pace than met the eye. Who really killed Harry Pace? You had better read the book and decide for yourself.

'Decide for yourself.' Hmm. Sounds about right.

And I believe there is a holiday coming.

(Quotes from the Dec-Jan 2012/13 issue of the Literary Review.)

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 6

Continuing my pre-Christmas round-up of reviews of my book over the past year...

A couple of very positive things were said about the book even before it was actually published: in the 'blurbs' that were gained by sending out a pre-publication version of the main text to a couple of experts in the field.

So, while they're not technically 'reviews' they certainly have review-like qualities and, in a spirit of Christmas generosity, can be included here.

The two back-of-the-book blurbs we succeeded in getting were from two renowned historians, Clive Emsley (Professor Emeritus of History at the Open University) and Joanna Bourke (Professor of History at Birkbeck College).

I happened to meet Joanna for the first time in 2007 when I was actually giving one of the very first conference papers based upon my then still quite early research into the Pace murder trial. She was enthusiastic about the story from the beginning, becoming one of the many people who were very encouraging along the (long) way from the start of the project to publication.

For her blurb, she wrote: 
'This is history as murder-mystery. John Carter Wood tells a spellbinding story of murder, using the trials of the accused (Beatrice Pace) to reflect the nature of celebrity culture, the legal system, and gender relations in 1920s Britain. The fundamental question remains: did Beatrice Pace kill her husband? You will have to read the book to find out!'

For anyone interested in crime and policing history, Clive of course needs no introduction. (You can find a review of his latest book -- on the history of crime and the British military -- here.) And he also said some characteristically kind things about my book:

'The trial of Beatrice Pace was one of the most sensational news stories in inter-war Britain. In this thoroughly researched and clearly-argued study, John Carter Wood is not solely concerned with the usual question of whether or not Mrs Pace was guilty. Rather he also focuses on the period's celebrity culture, the role of the press, the development of public interest and the police. In so doing, he has produced a model for modern social and cultural historians.' 

High praise indeed from someone whose work has been influential on my own development as a historian of crime and justice.

Clive also very generously gave a speech at the shared book launch event for The Most Remarkable Woman in England and two other crime-history related titles from Manchester University Press last year. 

Seems like ages ago now, but it was only last year...

Thursday, 12 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 5

Continuing my pre-Christmas round-up of reviews of my book over the past year...

While there's something great about all positive reviews, of course, getting them from friends is even nicer.

And it's hardly as if that's a foregone conclusion: among academics, sometimes your friends can be your worst critics.

So it was a relief to see Andrew Hammel's review not only so positive but also so clear about why it was positive:

Yet the Pace case was more than a headline-grabber. The long interrogations of Mrs. Pace prompted outrage at Scotland Yard's 'third-degree' tactics, contributing to an emerging wave of civil-rights activism in 1920s England. The trial also highlighted the binds of economic dependence and discrimination which kept working-class women trapped in abusive marriages. John Carter Wood writes with verve and elegance, weaving insights into the broader social ramifications of this trial without losing the thread courtroom drama that makes the book such a compelling read. He has also done much original research, clearing up questions that previous accounts left unanswered and providing dozens of illustrations, some of which have come from previously-inaccessible private archives. The result is a vivid portrayal not just of one woman's fate, but of a society in transition. Highly recommended! 

Andrew's own book -- Ending the Death Penalty: The European Experience in Global Perspective -- is also 'highly recommended' if I do say so myself.

As is his blog.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 4

Continuing my pre-Christmas round-up of reviews of my book over the past year... 

The shortest comment in the Twelve Reviews of Christmas appeared, appropriately enough, on Twitter not long after The Most Remarkable Woman in England appeared.

It was written by Harvard psychology professor, Steven Pinker, who tweeted:

'A fascinating  real-life murder story: John Carter Wood's The Most Remarkable Woman in England.' 

I had had the great pleasure of being able to tell Steve (quite extensively) about the case and my research into it in person when we met at a violence history conference in Switzerland the year before that.

We had come to know each other starting in about 2007 via an extensive email  correspondence while he was working on his bestselling book The Better Angels of Our Nature, a signed copy of which arrived here shortly after the conference. 

I was therefore very pleased to be able to give him a copy of The Most Remarkable Woman in England in return.

It's not every day, after all, that your book gets recommended by one of the world's leading thinkers

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 3

Continuing my pre-Christmas round-up of reviews of my book over the past year... 

One of my favourite comments about the book came unexpectedly shortly before last Christmas, when crime novelist Nicola Upson selected The Most Remarkable Woman in England as her 'favourite crime book of the year':

Just for once, my crime book of the year isn’t a novel, but a factual account. In 1928, a quarryman called Harry Pace died of arsenic poisoning and his wife, Beatrice, was tried for his murder. John Carter Wood’s account of the case and trial has it all: suspense; surprise; and a searing account of one woman’s life, marriage, and journey from poverty and obscurity to celebrity and notoriety.

Wood is brave enough to allow much of an incredible story to tell itself through newspaper accounts, letters and Beatrice’s private papers, and the book is all the richer for it. And because it’s a true story, he has no choice but to include some of the more incredible plot elements that a novelist might lose courage with! A fascinating snapshot of interwar England, brilliantly brought to life.

I wasn't familiar with Upson's writing before then (for a crime historian I read very little crime fiction, actually...somehow I feel it'd be a bit of a busman's holiday), but her historically set novels certainly sound intriguing.

So they're now on my list.

In any case, I was (and remain) very pleased by what she had to say about my book.  

Monday, 9 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 2

Continuing my pre-Christmas round-up of reviews of my book over the past year... 

One of the early reviews of The Most Remarkable Woman in England appeared in the Times Higher Education (...despite their name change I still can hardly resist mentally adding 'Supplement'...) by June Purvis.

She wrote:

The Most Remarkable Woman in England is an intriguing book. It not only raises pertinent questions about the use of “evidence” to build a criminal case but also reveals how debates about gender roles, domestic violence and justice for the poor erupted at one particular cultural moment in inter-war Britain.

The review does a good job of summarising the main points of the case and my analysis of it, and then concludes:

And so, dear reader, did Beatrice Pace really do it? Wood believes the decision to acquit her was correct and that it is plausible that Harry committed suicide in a fit of depression. But, like all good mysteries, it is up to you to make up your own mind after carefully reviewing the “evidence”, sometimes contradictory, presented here. This book will be an invaluable aid to those interested in the history of criminal justice and British society in the 1920s.

Yes, I must agree: I think it will!

One minor quibble: Purvis wrote in the opening of the review that I became interested in the case 'nearly five decades later' (i.e., after the trial). She meant nearly eight, I presume: five decades after the Pace trial I was still in primary school.

An easy mistake to make, and certainly forgiveable considering the positive verdict.

But I feel old enough as it is, let's not make me any older.

Friday, 6 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 1

This is only the second Christmas season since the release of The Most Remarkable Woman in England, and I thought it an opportune time to revisit some of the very nice things that have been written and said about the book since it was published late last year.

Coincidentally, a new review of the book appeared today, and since it was so thoughtful and positive, I thought I would make it the first of my (cleverly seasonally themed) feature: The Twelve Reviews of Christmas.

At her blog, Nose in a Book, Kate Gardner finds much to praise in my history of the Pace murder trial, and I was particularly pleased that she emphasised some of those things that I had specifically aimed for in writing it.

It's nice, after all, when you work very hard to achieve a certain kind of effect and then succeed.

For instance, she writes:

[T]his is a really well written book. ... I have tried to read a few historical books written for a popular audience and generally I’ve struggled. Even the super successful The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which it’s hard not to compare this to, didn’t entirely get it right in my view.

The way in which Wood does get it right is, to begin with, his identifying what it was about the case that made its players instantly famous. He has some very smart things to say about celebrity culture being tied to social and political changes, such as women’s liberation or distrust of the police force. Wood quotes extensively from original sources, which serves two purposes: you are left in no doubt as to where each fact/opinions comes from, and you get a real flavour of the time and place.

But perhaps my favourite comment is this one:

I know that this book worked in a narrative sense because for most of the time I was reading it I felt a prickling at the back of my neck that I only get from a good crime book, whether true or fictional.

That, dear reader, is high praise indeed.

And -- perhaps -- it's just the thing for the crime-story fan on your Christmas list. Don't you think?

After all: according to her blog, the author of this review received the book last year as a Christmas present.

So, spread the joy, I say.

Please do read the rest of the review at Nose in a Book. And, while you're there, check out the other reviews.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Generation gaps and girly men

One of the central background issues in my study of the Pace case are the changes in the ways that femininity, masculinity and marriage were seen in the inter-war period in Britain.

The current issue of the London Review of Books has a fascinating review by Alan Allport of a new book by Melanie Tebbutt, Being Boys: Youth, Leisure and Identity in the Interwar Years. 

It emphasises the new opportunities for young men in the 1920s and 1930s.

And also some of the new challenges:

Together, the cinema and the dance hall transformed courtship. Film provided instruction in manliness and the dance hall was where young men put what they had learned into practice. But it could be an unforgiving venue. [...] At the approach of a 16th or 17th birthday, dancing, in the words of one young man, ‘assumed, quite suddenly, a devastating importance, an arcane significance’. There were just as many male as female wallflowers at the Hammersmith Palais, self-conscious boys shuffling awkwardly at the periphery of the dance floor.

Unfamiliarity with the latest dance steps was only one of many sources of unease for the new young man. As courtship moved beyond neighbourhood circles, so appearance and deportment acquired a heightened importance. The availability after the war of good quality off-the-rack suits from Burton’s and Fifty Shilling Tailors created an expectation that men would dress smartly and fashionably in public, opening up a possibility of embarrassment hitherto unknown to working-class men. [...] Advertising of personal hygiene products was aimed mainly at young women, but boys were also swept up in the new insecurity about perspiration and bad breath. As working-class men became more visibly indistinguishable from the middle class, so they acquired all the hang-ups of embourgeoisement.

And they also became the target of a good deal of criticism from the older generation:

With his ‘constant combing of well-oiled locks of long hair, tidy clothes and well-kept hands and nails’, as one exasperated army physical training instructor put it, the new teenager was symptomatic of a greater national effeminisation that was undermining Britain’s ability to defend itself in an ever more dangerous world.

And here lies a great historical irony. For while at the beginning of the 21st century our fading ‘Greatest Generation’ is lauded for its hardscrabble upbringing and its stoic sacrifices, on the eve of the Second World War it was being lambasted by its elders for being spoiled, self-absorbed and dandified.

‘By comparison with the French, or the Germans, for that matter, our men for the most part seem distressingly young, not so much in years as in self-reliance and manliness generally … they give an impression of being callow and undeveloped,’ General Auchinleck was to warn the war cabinet in 1940. Not so long before Dunkirk, Britain’s heroic Tommies had been its wayward youth.