I read my first John Boyne book, the Gothic ghost story This House is Haunted, last year just in time for Halloween. Since then I’ve been wanting to read another of his books and this novel, based on a real-life crime which took place in London more than a century ago, is the one I chose. It turned out to be a good choice because I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed This House is Haunted, although the two books are quite different.
Crippen is a fictional account of the life of the notorious murderer, Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen, who was found guilty of murdering his wife and hiding the remains in the cellar of his home at 39 Hilldrop Crescent. It sounds very morbid and gruesome, I know, but the book is actually not as dark as you might imagine thanks to Boyne’s sense of humour, colourful characters and storytelling flair.
The story begins in the summer of 1910 and introduces us to a group of passengers on board the SS Montrose, sailing from Belgium to Canada. There’s Mrs Drake, a demanding, overbearing woman, and her daughter, Victoria, who is hoping to find romance on the journey. Then there’s Martha Hayes, who would prefer to hide herself away in her cabin with a pile of novels than mix with the other passengers, and Matthieu Zela, a Frenchman travelling with his obnoxious nephew, Tom. And finally, we meet Mr Robinson and his teenage son, Edmund, who are hoping for a quiet and uneventful journey.
If you’re not already familiar with the Crippen murder case, you might be wondering what the relevance is of the Atlantic voyage I’ve just described. I can promise you it is very relevant, although we don’t find out why until later in the book. Before we reach that point, we go back in time to the 1860s where we follow the young Hawley Harvey Crippen through his childhood in Michigan. As a teenager he decides he wants to study medicine, but when his parents refuse to help him financially it seems unlikely that Hawley will ever become a fully qualified doctor. After marrying Cora Turner, a music hall singer, the Crippens move to London where Hawley becomes an assistant in a homeopathic medicines company. Several years later, Cora disappears, her friends become convinced she has been murdered, and Hawley finds himself under suspicion…
Before beginning this book, I had heard of Dr Crippen but didn’t know any of the details of the case. I didn’t even know that there was so much controversy surrounding it. Boyne presents an interesting theory as to what may have actually happened, though I have no idea whether there could be any truth to this theory or not – I suspect there probably isn’t, but the book certainly does show Crippen in a much more sympathetic light than you might expect. It would be hard not to feel sorry for Boyne’s portrayal of a boy forced to abandon his dreams, a quiet and mild-mannered man bullied and abused by his selfish, manipulative wife.
My only complaint is that it was difficult to know exactly which parts of the novel were fictional and which weren’t. I looked up some factual information about Hawley Harvey Crippen after I read the book and was surprised to find that Boyne had changed so many biographical details, such as the names of Crippen’s parents and the fact that his first wife had actually died of a stroke rather than a road accident as described in the novel. When writing a fictional account of a real person’s life, it’s obvious that things like conversations, thoughts and emotions will have to be invented, but I’m not sure what the point was in altering all those little details.
Anyway, I didn’t worry about any of this until after I’d finished the book. While I was reading I was completely captivated by the twists and turns of the story and by Boyne’s wonderful writing style. I’m looking forward to exploring the rest of his novels now!