Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem – Peter Ackroyd (1994)

This is a book that I first came across some time ago and had on my TBR list of novels set in Victorian London. I was reminded of its existence last week when I saw that it has been made into a film, The Limehouse Golem, which has just been shown at the Toronto Film Festival. From reading the review of the film, it seems to be quite different to the book. I will reserve judgment until I can see it but I think that the film may change the story into a more clear-cut murder mystery which should work well. The book attracted rave reviews when it was published over twenty years ago, and I enjoyed reading it. The question that I kept asking myself was: would this book be so well reviewed if it were to be published today?

We open with a striking and short chapter (two and a half pages) depicting the execution of Elizabeth Cree on the 6th April 1881. The description of this ritual is incredible. The sounds of the howling prisoners, the strategic placing of the coffin so that the condemned woman had to walk past it on her way to the gallows. Horrific. Cree has been hung for the murder of her husband John, dead through arsenic poisoning. Although Elizabeth plead her innocence, she seems to accept her fate rather willingly, even refusing to wear the hood as she is prepared to be hung. Is she guilty?

But there is more than one murderer abound it seems. The first known killing by the Limehouse Golem occurs on the 10th September 1880, the body of Jane Quig, a local prostitute, is found in three separate parts. The murderer’s modus operandi is to provide the public with as gruesome a death as can be managed, taking inspiration from the famous real-life murders of the entire Weir family in 1812. But who is the Golem? It is Inspector Kildare’s job to find out.

The atmosphere of the novel is spot on. I was straight into Victorian London. We follow Elizabeth Cree’s early life from poverty to the music halls where she meets Dan Leno and finds success on the stage. Ackroyd brings in many real-life characters and as well as Leno we have Karl Marx and George Gissing sitting together in the British Museum reading room. We even meet Charlie Chaplin’s parents. I love the addition of the trial transcripts to tell part of the story rather than writing these chapters in straight prose.

I trusted the facts in this book implicitly. The research is impeccable and is brought to life in a series of wonderful vignettes showing the lives of these well-known real-life personalities. Where I think the book falls down a little for me is that most of these well written segments have absolutely no relation to either the murder of John Cree or the mystery of the Limehouse Golem. There are tenuous links between John Cree’s visits to the British Museum and the inclusion of Marx and Gissing who study there at the same time, but as interesting from a historical point of view as these chapters are, they slow the pace of what should be a thrilling crime novel. Very little time was spent with Inspector Kildare in investigation the Golem, though I notice that his is the lead role in the film. I was also curious as to how Dan Leno ended up in the title of the novel since he is not a lead character, nor even a suspect in the murders, but I notice that the book is titled The Trial of Elizabeth Cree in other countries.

Overall, if you have an interest in historical fiction or Victorian London, you should enjoy this book. If I had picked it up as a crime or mystery novel alone then I may have been a little disappointed. There is a great twist (although I did guess it a little early) and the chapters written from the point of view of the Golem are fascinating. I just would have liked to spend a little more time on the mystery and less time following Karl Marx on his household visits

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