Pre-Warning: I had never come across this story before. That being said, I found it to be so compelling I am officially obsessed.
This is the story of John Tawell, a Quaker, a philanthropist, and a murderer. Sound juicy enough for you? For me, being a tech-loving history buff, the clincher was the involvement of one of most the transformative pieces of communication technology during an era of technological firsts – the electric telegraph – and it’s involvement in the capture of Tawell. Baxter argues the case for Tawell’s capture being the tipping point for the spread of the technology across the world. I can’t help but think of the implications of that for our world today, but I’m not going to go off on a tangent, at least too much.
The story itself is a relatively simple crime-drama/history piece. Baxter uses an amazingly detailed amount of research to piece together the events, and an easy and flowing dialogue that keeps you turning the page. I was surprised to find myself keenly interested in the Author’s Notes for this book. Normally, I’m more interested in getting lost in the story, not the actual detail that went in to producing it. But just the level of detail, not to mention the lengthy bibliography, really pushed home for me that the characters were real people. That the representation the author gives is as close to their personalities as we can get. The events were real, and Baxter makes them real for the reader.
For me, the best bit comes nearer the end, during the trial. I know the facts of the case (I may have skipped ahead a little by Googling John Tawell), I knew how it ended, and yet I found myself wondering quite a bit whether he’d done it or not. No doubt Tawell was a less-that scrupulous character. He got sent to Australia for counterfeiting and the woman he murdered was his mistress. But by the end you almost forget what he did and pretty much throw yourself in to the (admittedly pretty gory) science behind the autopsy, and the actual legal case he presented. Obviously, the character you focus on is Tawell. The cold, calculating man who so desperately wants to be a Quaker.
I admit, I wasn’t quite convinced by the downfall that led him to poison his mistress. He seems to have gone from someone desperate to be accepted in to the Quaker tradition, focused on proving his worth to a stone cold ‘psychopath’ as Baxter describes him near the end of the novel. But the character doesn’t seem to develop, just his actions. I suppose that is a consequence of moulding the characters around the facts. It’s certainly not a fatal flaw in the work, but it is vaguely noticeable.
So, would I recommend this book? Well, considering I’ve spent the time since finishing it flicking through Wikipedia articles about practically everything mentioned, I would say yes. Definitely.
Hope you enjoy it.