Monday, 9 January 2012

Review - Mr Briggs' Hat

In Litro news, my first blog of the year is up there, a review of the recent BBC Great Expectations.Which I liked, although I think I was feeling a bit post-Christmas grim when I wrote it. Be warned. Also, Writersdock has very kindly reblogged my review of Birdsong, which is especially relevant right now since the BBC is about to air their remake of that, too. It may be good. The book was a turd.

Anyway. Today my review is non-fiction, and also crime, which is my favourite sort of non-fiction (this probably doesn't imply good things about me). Here goes.

There is a railway bridge that runs right in front of my window. It's one of those heavy red brick ones with arches and built-in storage units (incidentally, the owners of the unit closest to me may have found the entrance to Narnia, judging by the astonishing number and range of goods and people that go in and out of there every morning). Commuter trains rattle across it for 20 hours a day, pleasantly lit up and sounding vaguely like the washing machine. It's a very nice view. I get to stare at the trains as they pass, and presumably the people in the trains get to stare at me staring blankly at a computer screen and drinking coffee. Sometimes they also get to see me putting on my tights.

My point is, what with that and the Tube, trains make up a large part of my urban day. It's strange to think that once upon a time 150 years ago trains were still a deeply unnatural and quite frightening imposition on Londoners' lives. Even stranger, for those of us used to watching babies and drunkards weaving their way up and down between carriages, is that trains used to be the ultimate locked room scenario. Until the late nineteenth century there were no connecting doors between carriages, just side doors that got locked between stations. Once you were shut in, there was really no way out, and you just had to cross your fingers and mightily hope that you were not sharing your space with a mad axe murderer.

Unfortunately for senior bank clerk Mr Thomas Briggs, that was more or less what happened to him. Poor Briggs, the subject of Kate Colquhoun's book Mr Briggs' Hat, has gone down in history for being the man with the dubious honour of being the first person to be murdered on a train in Britain.

The facts in his case are briefly these:

Just after 10pm on the 9th July 1864, two men trying to board a train carriage at Hackney Wick station in London discovered it empty but slathered in blood. The alarm was raised, and subsequent investigations found Mr Briggs lying upside down on the track between Bow and Hackney Wick, in a coma from which he never recovered. A more thorough search of the carriage and Mr Briggs revealed that he was missing both his watch and his hat. A hat was found under the carriage's seats, but, crucially, it did not belong to Mr Briggs.

With the sort of blugeoning fit-the-peg-in-the-hole certainty familiar to those familiar with the police and/or the Victorians, the detectives on the case worked their way via hat and watch to a 24-year-old tailor named Franz Muller, who was German and thus seemed shifty. The only problem was that by the time they were ready to make their arrest, Mr Muller was already en route to America.

I won't give you the details of the rest of the story, which involves intrigue, complex watch- and hat-swapping scenarios, a brilliantly slow high-speed sea chase across two continents and a lot of confusion, but I will say that Kate Colquhoun is quite right to give her book the subtitle 'A Sensational Account'. It's one of those true stories so interesting that it ought to be fiction, and Colquhoun tells it sensationally (with all the 1860s connotations of the word) and at speed. There's a lot of high colour and general jollity, and though Colquhoun obviously has done her research on the era and the case, she doesn't smother the reader with needless superior knowledge (which I like, on the whole, although I do wish she'd found out about quotation marks - as a temporary academic I feel strongly that italics are not how we quote).

There's such a lot of atmosphere and local colour that it can get oppressive sometimes - cockneys hawking haddock, pea soupers, rough waves, sweltering Upper East Side days and so on - but if you shove all that fog out of the way there's an interesting and surprisingly informative account of Britain and America in the mid 1860s lurking beneath it. There's also a fairly interesting and twisty mystery. I was expecting an open and shut case, but the more I read, the more doubt began to worm its way into me. Could there be other explanations? Could Muller's alibi be true? I don't know, and now it's bothering my brain.

I do find it odd that, at the end, after managing to question so much of the evidence against Muller, Colquhoun doesn't come down firmly on one side or the other over the question of his guilt. I think she thinks he didn't do it, or that it was sort of an accident, but she doesn't say, and it left me feeling slightly at a loose end. Sensation fiction is supposed to end with certainty, damn it, and the small matter of this being fact shouldn't prevent a good bit of editorial wrapping-up.

What we do hear is that the Briggs case heralded a new era in train safety, in that it made people realise for the first time that train safety might be a good idea. It also (and I know this from my own crime obsession) was the crime that spawned a thousand books. You can see the shadow of Mr Briggs in countless train-carriage murder mysteries, in hordes of respectable white-haired murder victims, in foreign suspects and thrilling chases and objects that manage to silently tell the story of the crime.

Not, of course, that this would be much consolation to Mr Briggs, or, if he was innocent, to Mr Muller. But it's all very interesting to think about, and Kate Colquhoun's presentation of the Briggs case is also a lot more fun to read than Love and Mr Lewisham was. Enjoyable stuff.

3 stars.

1 comment:

  1. I can't think of anything good to say. But I enjoyed this one.