Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Our Vicar's Wife: Mr. Briggs' Hat

Back in the spring my Mum/Our Vicar's Wife/Anne featured in My Life in Books series chez Stuck-in-a-Book. The whole first series can be read if you click on the icon over there somewhere -----> and clicking on the link just above will take you to OVW's particular one. OVW got a very enthusiastic response that week, and I've been hoping since then that she'd pen me a review for the blog. The good people of Little Brown kindly sent a review copy of Mr. Briggs' Hat by Kate Colquhoun off to OVW and, without further ado, here are her thoughts. (As always, when I'm featuring friends' and relations' reviews, I expect my lovely, loyal blog readers to welcome them with open arms. This won't be difficult with such a familiar figure as OVW, I'm sure).

Mr Briggs’ Hat by Kate Colquhoun: ‘A sensational account of Britain’s first Railway Murder’

From the moment I picked up Mr Briggs’ Hat I knew I was set on a truly Victorian quest. The dust jacket, with its ‘bloodstains’, black and red print, period font and perspective railway track was clearly going to draw the reader back to a time of sensational news reporting, embryonic police detection, circumstantial evidence and the hurly burly of 1864 London.

I settled into an armchair and began to read.

First, my eye was caught by a map of central London as it was in 1862. Smudged and dark, it was dominated by the river Thames, with narrow streets and alleys leading away into unknown territory. Having spent the past year researching into life in the London of this period I knew what I was likely to meet – but nothing prepared me for the matter of fact description of the ‘blood-drenched’ railway carriage on page 12. I read on, intrigued by the mixture of detective novel and historical guide to London. It wasn’t entirely clear to me whether Kate Colquhoun sought to give a factual description of events or whether what she had in mind was something in the line of a ‘Penny Dreadful’.

I read on.

The story is quite simple. Blood is found in a railway carriage. Murder appears to have been done, but no body is to be found. The only tangible clue is a somewhat battered hat. Upon this hat the entire plot pivots. Gradually details emerge about the victim. Against a background of respectable middle class contrasted with working class teetering into abject poverty and vice, the canvas is painted, the crime uncovered and then the race is on to find the murderer – or murderers. Everything hangs upon the circumstantial evidence of the hat – where it was bought, who bought it, who modified it, who left it in the carriage. As the police detective painstakingly works against the clock, a series of red herrings confuse the issue. The reader rises and falls with every new clue, new sighting, new evidence, new revelation or disappointment.

There is a phenomenal amount of detail in the book. Kate Colquhoun cannot be accused of skimping on her research. Perhaps from time to time there is a hint of repetition, a smidgen of ‘overkill’ in her style, but for the main part the author succeeds in maintaining the sense of a whodunit, rather than falling back into a less engaging stylistic form.

Halfway through the book I had a moment of uncertainty: was I reading fact or fiction? I turned to my husband for enlightenment. “Have you read the notes?” he asked.

Some people always flip to the end of a book before going to the front. I am not one of them. Others always look for a Contents page and muse long and hard upon it. Not I. If I had been either of these people it would have been obvious from the start that this was, if not a non-fictional historical account of the murder, at the very least a ‘factional’ one – with the very great quantity of fact made palatable by an excellent understanding of the need for narrative drive.

The notes are extremely helpful. Highlighted words and phrases from numbered pages enable the reader to unpick the finer detail. However, with nothing in the main text to hint at this largesse, it was lost on me during my first reading.

The case itself was of great interest to me as it contributed to significant changes in the law regarding the right of prisoners to speak in their own defence. I was particularly struck by the court scenes and the limitations of evidence at that time. I was also interested to see the prejudices at work at the time. With the rabble almost taking over the city every time there was a public hanging, it could be said that this book chimes with the spirit of summer 2011.

Did the power of public opinion make for a fair trial? Did the press conspire to rouse the feelings of the public against one man? Was nationality or class or level of education to blame for a miscarriage of justice? Did the representative of the Church tell the truth, or did he conspire with the powers that be in order to maintain the wider calm?

Read the book. Make up your own mind. Or not, as the case may be.

Mr Briggs’ Hat is published by Little Brown. They describe it as NON-FICTION.

Do you agree?


  1. This sounds really intriguing, and a bit like The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale. I'll have to look for Mr. Briggs and his hat!

  2. Ooh this sounds like it will be right up my alley. Great review. I, like you, really love that cover!

  3. Ooh, is it like The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher? Sounds interesting!

  4. Mr Whicher is mentioned in the book - but he was one of the first 'detectives' taken on in 1842. This book is set in 1864. Well-spotted though, Lisa May and chasingbawa!

  5. I was never in any doubt that this was a non-fiction book, albeit one written in an engaging fiction-like style. It shows how the popularity of sensation fiction helped fuel public interest in the case, and to generate considerable unease about the safety or otherwise of railway passengers travelling in the self-contained compartments that were the norm at the time.

    Comparison with Kate Summerscale's book are inevitable, but also appropriate. I think that anyone who enjoyed Mr Whicher will also enjoy Mr Briggs, and vice versa.

  6. I am so glad I have found someone who has read this - I have been itching to get my hands on it for ages!

    It has overtones of Mr Whicher which I found enjoyable. So I know I will enjoy this one and I do like a good murder book.

    Thanks for the review it had me hooked.

  7. Excellent review! I'll keep my out for it. Although, I must admit that I'm not sure what I think of the "factional" books coming out these days. For strictly entertainment purposes, they are fine, but I wonder what kind of effect they will have on recorded history further down the road? Thanks for bringing this one to our attention.

  8. I put this book on the display stand at my library just last week. Great cover. I'd like to read it one day as I loved Mr Whicher but lately I've been reading lots of 19th century fiction& I'm not sure how long the mood will last. Enticing review, though!

  9. Simon, On your mother's recommendation my mother is now reading the book and conversation has ceased in our house! She is immersed totally in Mr Briggs and says to tell you that it is definitely non-fiction!!


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