MORRIS’ VICTORIAN, IRISH MURDER MYSTERY, STEAMS ONTO SHELVES IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS

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Over the past year, two independently made tv documentaries have put the spotlight on the small West Cork village of Schull and has led to large numbers of viewers flocking there. The reason for the interest in this remote hamlet, is the unsolved murder of French film producer Sophie Toscan du Plantier in December 1996. In the interim, one man has become the prime suspect, but never been charged or convicted in Ireland. In France, Ian Bailey was found guilty in absentia and sentenced to 25 years in prison. There are similarities to this case and the subject of this month’s second Book Review, the book is the Dublin Railway Murder by Thomas Morris and published by Vintage ( www.penguin.co.uk/company/publishers/vintage.html ) on the 11th November.

Dublin 1856, the Chief Cashier of the Midlands Great Western Railway, Mr George Little. Was discovered dead with his throat cut in his office, which was locked from the inside, at the Broadstone Terminus. No murder weapon was found and thousands of pounds in gold and silver are left lying on his desk. Irelands most experienced detective and Dublin’s leading lawyer team up the investigate the murder. But the mystery defies all explanation and even baffles two of Scotland Yard’s top sleuths. With the days and months dragging on and five suspects arrested and released, along with every twist and turn of the case followed by the press, a local woman suddenly comes forward claiming to know the killer… Is she telling the truth, or is it just another dead end? Also, can a Phrenologist from England also prove that he can tell if a person is a murderer or not by measuring their head, if so, is the new suspect capable of committing such a deed?

I live just south of Dublin in the coastal town of Bray, and was in the city last week when I had to go to the leafy southside suburb of Ballsbridge for a work event. As for being anywhere near the north inner city, it’s been well over two years or more. The Broadstone terminus is now a large Dublin Bus depot, with a Dublin Light Rail (LUAS) stop adjoining it too.  It recently underwent a major multimillion-euro restoration project of the old station building. I’ve never had any need to use it or visit the site or was I aware of an unsolved murder there.

Click the link to take a virtual tour of the refurbished station and The murder scene (KBC / Journal.ie) http://www.thejournal.ie/broadstone-station-vr-tour-3836271-Feb2018

The book is an amazing historical read, which leads the reader through every facet of the investigation and its aftermath. I was enthralled by the historical detail Morris potrayed about Dublin, Ireland, and its citizens, as well as the famous literary connectiuons to the case, like Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde. While reliving how basic murder investigations were back then. Especially considering how easily crime solving is portrayed in books and on the large and small screens these days, with the aid of computers and Forensics.

Back then, for example, the coroner wasn’t a medical man, just someone from the political elite who had friends in high places. Then there’s the strange interpretations of the law, like for example a wife not being able to give evidence against her husband. While forensically, the crime scene is all but rendered useless by hordes of curious onlookers and members of staff of the building entering the office to gawp at the sight of a dead man, let alone mentioning that the body is searched by members of the management of the company before any member of the police force arrives on the scene. This all comes across as very chaotic, but it is of its time and thank God things have moved on.

Broadstone station building (The Irish Times)

This isn’t my first time reading a book detailing the investigation of a real-life murder in Victorian England or Ireland. I’ve previously read the Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscales, Whicher was actually one of the two detectives sent across by Scotland Yard, although the celebrated detective remained very much under the radar and returned home baffled by the case after a fornight. On top of that I’ve also read Patricia Cornwell’s Portrait of a Killer, one of many books written about Jack The Ripper. Here we realise very quickly the haphazard way things were done, even down to the anti-Semitic accusations bandied about by the public and press.

Meanwhile, if you are one who loves James Patterson’s style of serving up chapters a single page long, then you are in for a let-down, so meaty and in-depth is Morris’ research and attention to detail, they are on average twenty plus pages in length. Each one ends on a teasing and page turning high point, meaning that this could lead to a few late nights. Who needs Netflix when you can binge your way through the salacious details of a murder mystery that makes this book a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable read? So delighted was I with this book, that had it arrived a couple of weeks earlier, I’d have presented it to my book group as my December choice. I suppose there’s always next year,

Thomas Morris

This is English author and historian Thomas Morris’ ( www.thomas-morris.uk )  third book, his others are The Matter Of The Heart (2017) and The Mystery Of The Exploding Teeth (2018). Before becoming a write he was a BBC Radio Producer for 18years and his freelance journalism has appeared in The Times, The Lancet and TLS. He also has a blog is subtitled “Making You Grateful for Modern Medicine”, he currently lives in London.

So, if you are interested in Irish history, or like me a local resident fascinated to learn about the capital city’s dark past, then this enthralling and highly addictive book is a must for you, or an excellent Christmas present for friends or family at home or abroad.

Reviewed by   Adrian Murphy

This review is part of a Random Things Blog Tour. To see what the other reviewers thought visit their blogs listed below. Then, if you get a copy and read it, comeback and tell us what you thought. We’d really appreciate the feedback.

SIJIE’S LITTLE SEAMSTRESS MAKES A FLUFFY SILK PURSE OUT OF A VERY UGLY MAO’S FOUR YEARS

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balzac-cvrIn a little over 6 weeks time, one of the smallest countries in the world, with the largest diaspora celebrates its annual holiday. I am of course referring to Ireland and St. Patrick’s day, which is celebrated almost the world over. While this weekend sees one of the largest countries in the world with an equally wide spread diaspora celebrate its New Year, four weeks after the rest of the world. That is China and the arrival of the year of the rooster. This month’s second book  is  written by a Chinese writer, something I wouldn’t normally get much chance to experience, unless of course, like me  you’re in a book group, which is how I came to read this. The book is Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, published by Vintage publishing in 2002 (www.vintage-books.co.uk).

The book tells the story of two teenage boys Ma Jianling and Luo Min  – sons of doctors, who as part of Chairman Mao’s re-education program, are sent to the wilds of rural china to knock the elitist well educated corners off them. Here they are put to work in the paddy fields, down mines, doing back breaking hard labour and other menial tasks. They are treated with disdain by the town elders and their poor and uneducated subjects but from the outset the two boys prove they can offer more than just cheap easy labour. One of them plays a violin, while the other is a fantastic story teller and they are soon given the additional task of going to the local city to watch the films and re-enact them to the locals. During their first couple of weeks traipsing back and forth across the foothills to and from the their daily back breaking chores, they meet a local travelling tailor and his beautiful daughter – whom Lou starts to court. Shortly after that  they discover a friend known as “Four Eyes,”  has a stash of forbidden 19th century European novels in a suitcase under his bed. They borrow one of the books and as they educate the young seamstress in the writing of Balzac, they realize she wants to hear more and so they set about planning to liberate the suitcase and its contents from under Four Eye’s bed. Will they succeed? Will the elders discover the books and burn them, or will their re-education program come to an end sooner? Will Lou and the little seamstress – end up happily married.

I didn’t know anything about Mao’s “Re-Education” program. Not until I opened the book and started reading, did  I realize it was part of the Cultural Revolution and was more commonly known as the “Up To The Mountains, Down To The Countryside Movement”. Through this program the People’s Party under Mao set about ridding the country of capitalist influences, by sending an estimated 17 million young people from the large cities to rural hard labour camps between 1966 – 76.

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The book is very short. At only one hundred and seventy pages it is a classical novella, so theoretically there is no reason this can’t be read in one sitting. Of the two main characters, we only really get to know the name of one Lou – the other one never reveals his name and if he does it is a fleeting reference (it was only through research of the film did I find his name in the credits). The story is educational and well written and documents perfectly the coming of age and re-education or widening of every character’s knowledge from the little seamstress’s exposure to literature to the boy’s introduction hard labour and the joys of romance as well as sex.

Dai Sijie was born in china, the only child of two medical professors under the Re-Education program he was sent to rural Sichuan. Although, as an only child he would have

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Dai Sijie

been exempt, but he went any way to experience the spartan lifestyle. On his return after 4 years, he became a lecturer in art in 1974. In 1984 he moved to France on scholarship where he still lives today. There he developed a liking for writing and  directing films. Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress ( Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise) was the first of two books he’s written and his experiences in the re-education camp are the inspiration for the book. His second book Mr Mouch’s Travelling Couch ( Le Complexe de Di)  was published in 2003. It was translated into English in 2005. He made Balzac And the Little Chinese Seamstress into a movie in 2002, he has made five other films since.

Sijie does for the Cultural Revolution through this book, what the likes of Schindler’s List, The Boy In The Stripped Pyjamas and The Book Thief for example did for the brutality of the Nazi regime. Lift a small stone and shed a very big light on it. Although compared to Schindler’s List – Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress is a laugh out loud comedy. Though, this is not to denigrate the experiences of those who survived the Re-Education camps. Sidjie has put a rather fluffy feel on a very arduous and harrowing period in Chinese history.

So buy or download a copy of this book, then as you decide what’s for dinner, maybe opt for Chinese take away with  traditional New Year’s Moon Cake, and settle down for both an educational and hugely enjoyable romp through the Cultural Revolution. Xinjian Kuaile…