In May 1840, British aristocrat Lord William Russell was found dead in his bed, his throat slashed so violently that his head was nearly severed. All of London was swept up in the mystery of his murder, with Queen Victoria herself noting in her diary, "It is almost an unparalleled thing for a person of Ld William's rank, to be killed like that." But this is only half of the story that Claire Harman tells in Murder by the Book; she also explores the rise of "felon fiction" or "Newgate novels," which celebrated the wit and ingenuity of the common, working-class man, but glamorized crime and violence. The two threads of Harman's story come together in the eventual confession of Lord William's murderer, which cites Jack Sheppard, the most popular of the "Newgate novels" at the time, as inspiration for the crime.
Harman's work is authoritative and well researched, and she's able to build a surprising amount of tension, considering that the murderer is identified fairly early. She writes with an expressive and slightly old-fashioned language that suits and helps to develop her setting. Meanwhile, the concern shown by Victorian critics over the moral (or more accurately immoral) influence of contemporary media should be a familiar issue to most modern readers. With special appearances by Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray and Edgar Allan Poe, this is an engrossing story of true crime, wrapped in a fascinating literary history. --Judie Evans, librarian