The striking image of William Fitzosbert’s limp, dead body hanging from the Tyburn Tree outside London is the opening scene in the latest of Catherine Arnolds books based within the capital. The author, whose previous London studies have considered the sin, madness and death that have filled the cities streets, is now considering perhaps the most prominent aspect of all, its crime and punishment, in her latest work “Underworld London”.
It is a vivid and sometimes graphic book, examining topics that range from pick pocketing and murder to treason, alongside in-depth analysis of the individuals involved in their execution. Through a number of pen portraits, Arnold creates the atmosphere of the city, making this book more accessible than many on this subject through her entertaining tales. The characters discussed appear vividly in a readers mind, as we visit the houses of murderers such as Edith Thompson; tourist attractions patrolled by pickpockets almost identical to Fagin himself and alleyways dominated by Jack the Ripper during his haunt of the city in 1888.
Newspaper headlines from one of the murders committed by ‘Jack the Ripper’.
Arnold’s London is a place in which crime occurs on every street corner with many criminals occupying an almost hero-like status amongst its inhabitants. These descriptions, such as that of Jack Sheppard, a burglar from the 18th century who escaped jail no less that 4 times with his lover Elizabeth Lyon, are perhaps this book at its best. Exciting narration immerses the reader in the city, drawing us into the characters lives.
However, in some places Arnold does fail to move beyond these entertaining vignettes. While highly detailed, with descriptions so graphic they would put even the strong stomached off their dinner, the book rarely appears to go beyond the subject’s surface in terms of analysis. This is perhaps a casualty of Arnold’s attempt to cover such an extensive time span, from 1139 through to the 20th century; this does make some parts of the book feel slightly disappointing. Nevertheless the wide range of crimes discussed, while limiting analysis, do mean that this book is ideal as an introduction to the subject for those with no prior knowledge.
As a result of this accessibility and the entertaining stories relayed by Arnold the book is well worth a readers time. On opening this book you may well find yourself drawn to visit the city today in order to experience the places Arnold writes about and see the streets acting as a stage for the characters crimes.
If nothing else Arnold’s work will do wonders for the city’s tourist industry, perhaps meaning its occasionally superficial nature can be forgiven and in this way the book is certainly a must read before your next visit to London.