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Crippen: A Novel of Murder    by John Boyne order for
by John Boyne
Order:  USA  Can
St. Martin's, 2006 (2004)
Hardcover, Paperback
* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

This most highly recommended novel - written in a remarkably engaging narrative style - begins on the Canadian passenger ship SS Montrose as it departs Antwerp, Belgium, in late July of 1910 on its way to Quebec, Canada. Some of the more interesting passengers to whom readers are introduced include the perceptive Matthieu Zéla and his truculent fourteen year old nephew Tom, the meddlesome Mrs. Antoinette Drake and her naďve but amorous daughter Victoria, the rather solitary twenty-nine year old Martha Hayes, and - perhaps the most intriguing and most secretive pair - Mr. John Robinson and his adolescent son Edmund.

Shifting abruptly after two dozen pages, the action moves to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1862. It is there that Hawley is born to Jezebel Quirk Crippen - a woman, according to her husband, who would become a traitor to her own name after the boy's birth and instead would begin to see God's glory in every blessed moment of the day - and Samuel Crippen - a miserable grocery store owner who would spend very little time at home, preferring instead to pass his evenings either at the local saloon or the nearby brothel.

Hawley Crippen - a youngster who would be profoundly affected by growing up as Jezebel's and Samuel's child - would, as a young adult, work (ironically and quite effectively) at a slaughterhouse; he would also become so fascinated with medical science that he would eventually complete a correspondence course from the Medical College of Philadelphia; he would move away from Ann Arbor and would work first as a physician's assistant, later as an assistant at an ophthalmology hospital, and ultimately - after living and working also in Detroit, Utah, and New York City - he would work in London as a medical supplies salesman and a self-employed dentist; along life's way, Crippen would marry twice - first to Charlotte who would die suddenly in a bizarre accident, and later to a music hall performer named Cora Turner who would die while purportedly traveling to visit relatives in California.

As Boyne's exemplary novel proceeds, the focus of the action alternates easily between following the life of Hawley Crippen and following the progress of the passengers on the Montrose. And at this point, you may be wondering, 'What on earth is the connection between the two settings?'

The not-so-simple answer to that question lies in understanding what Mrs. Louise Smythson of London tells Inspector Walter Dew of Scotland Yard. Mrs. Smythson, you see, is convinced that Cora Turner Crippen did not actually die in California; instead, because she had observed Dr. Crippen at the theatre in the company of a young woman named Ethel LeNeve, Mrs. Smythson is convinced that something much more horrible has happened to poor Cora. Inspector Dew, against his better judgment because he prefers not to validate the rants and ravings of the notorious busybody Mrs. Smythson, decides to make some inquiries. What he discovers on the afternoon of July 13, 1910 at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Camden, London, is actually quite remarkable. In fact, he finds -

Well, perhaps I have already revealed too much of John Boyne's fantastic plot. Crippen is a remarkable novel of suspense and mystery which is overflowing with a fascinating cast of characters, and the various characters' deceptions and dissimulations further enhance Crippen's power. Thematically, Crippen is seductively profound in the way characters (and readers) are such easy prey to disorientation and misapprehension. For many of the characters, perhaps especially the title character - a man who would, in real life, become feared, despised, and misunderstood - it is perhaps wise to note what one character in Crippen says: 'We can do the strangest things in the name of love.'

The bottom line is this: In the history of British crime, Dr. Crippen stands out as one of London's most infamous killers, and John Boyne's superb novelized version of the Crippen story will also stand out for a long, long time as one of recent publishing history's most genuinely thrilling novels of notorious murder, relentless pursuit, and - believe or not - love and passion. Don't miss it!

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