Victorian murders – The Mayne inheritance and Death at the priory

As part of our launch, several people have read and reviewed The suspicions of Mr Whicher, an excellent book about the foundation of the detective genre, that describes a seminal case, using the techniques of modern mystery writing.

So, I’d like to suggest a couple of other books in a similar vein. I listened to each of these in audiobook. We have paper copies of the second one, but the first one, if you want it in hardform, you’ll need to interlibrary loan.

Death at the priory is similar to Whicher, in that it’s about a famous historical murder, which influenced authors foundational to the genre of detective fiction, in this case Agatha Christie particularly. Charles Bravo, the victim, was simply a horrible man, the sort of victim popular for early mysteries, where the shock of murder (which modern readers hardly feel) was leavened a little by making the victim, if possible, deserve it thoroughly. Charles was poisoned with tartar emetic, a derivative of antimony. This is perhaps an ancestor of some of the exotic poisons in the works of later authors. Charles dismissed many of his wife’s servants in the days before the murder. This provides a range of suspects, of course, but it also, through the examination of the servant’s actions at the time of the murder, provides the sort of interesting period detail that is an attraction of historical true crime.

One difference from Whicher is that, and this isn’t a spoiler more a caution, there was never a conviction recorded in this case. The lack of a conviction explains, in part, why the crime became so notorious. The author does suggest who he believes committed the crime, and his conjecture seems superficially sound, but there’s no strange and sudden reveal which makes all of the evidence fall into place, or be discounted as red herring.  I enjoyed it a little less than Whicher, but it has many of the factors that appealed to me in the first book.

The Mayne inheritance is a book about a prominent Brisbane family, founded by a self-confessed murderer, and their suffering for his crimes. There’s some sort of congenital mental illness in the Mayne family, so society shunned them all, even the ones who were, in hindsight, useful and productive members of the community. In addition to the inheritance of madness and murderousness which the family carries, the book is about the real estate fortune of the family, seeded with the money stolen from the patriarch’s murder victim, which paid for the Saint Lucia  campus of the University of Queensland, and provides the University with funds to this day.

I want to like this book. It has local history, and a suitable crime, and its by a local author, and so I should like this book.  And I do…kind of. I like it, but with some caveats.

It’s billed as a story of gothic murder and grisly doings, which to be fair, it is but it’s not a mystery in any real sense. That’s not the fault of the book, but I came to read the book due to web advertising which put it in the mystery genre, when its more a social history. My second caveat is that the author tries to give an accurate history of the Maynes and rehabilitate their reputations. She seems to assume that I already know the rumours she hints at, that they are part of a familiar folk history which she and I share. Now, I’m a blow-in from Central Queensland, so, no, much of the time I don’t know what she’s talking about when she refers, glancingly, to the terrible things said about the family.

So, it’s a solid book, with some interesting parts, but it’s emphatically not a mystery, despite being billed as such by some of its promoters. As a social history it shares many of the features of its genre, and in this case one the weaknesses. It has an ending which is kind trickles off as the members of the family die. Now, of course, that’s what really happened, but at the same time, it means that the book winds down toward the end, before brief polemic for the rehabilitation of the reputation of the family which would ring more true, for me, if I’d heard of them before the book in the sort of negative context which the author presume I have.

The book is interesting, but only for those who like their true crime without the props of modern mystery writing.