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It is 1910 and Dr Hawley Crippen has been convicted of the murder of his wife Cora. In his cell at Pentonville Prison, Crippen faces the prospect of the gallows. Laying bare his innermost feelings, he looks back at his austere childhood in Coldwater, Michigan, his tempestuous marriage and life on the run with his lover Ethel Le Neve. Yet as he revisits his life, Crippen entreats us to consider his "confession": I am not a murderer. In Dancing for the Hangman, Martin Edwards reopens the file on one of the most notorious and fascinating cases in criminal history. Edwards blends imaginative insight with detailed and extensive research to bring to life the characters and events of a hundred years ago.
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While this fictional recreation of one of the early 20th century's most notorious crimes ranks among Edwards's best work, it has the misfortune to follow two superior books on the subject: Erik Larson's nonfiction Thunderstruck (2006) and John Boyne's Crippen: A Novel of Murder (2007). In a nice framing device, Dr. Hawley Crippen, as he sits in his jail cell in 1910 awaiting his date with the executioner, describes his life and the events that are bringing him to the scaffold, in particular the vicissitudes of his marriage to his second wife, Cora, of whose murder he was convicted. Edwards (Waterloo Sunset) offers an alternative, if somewhat implausible version of how Cora died that supports Crippen's claim of innocence. Many readers, however, will find Crippen, who abandoned his son and took up with his mistress shortly after Cora's death, a far from sympathetic narrator. Those looking for more depth should turn to Larson and Boyne. (Dec.)
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For a time, the name Dr. Crippen immediately conjured up images of depravity and murder. In 1910, Hawley Crippen, a homeopathic doctor from Michigan, was hanged in London for the murder of his wife, Cora. Crippen, or so the story went, decided to replace his wife with his lover, killing Cora and burying her body in his basement. In this imaginative novel, told mainly in the first person by Crippen himself, Edwards, author of the Harry Devlin series, offers up a clever reappraisal of the case. Edwards’ Crippen is not the coldhearted murderer of legend; he’s a patsy, easily swayed by the promise of sex or financial success, a weak and pathetic man who claims that he did not kill his wife. (There is some small possibility, based on recent DNA evidence, that Crippen may not have bumped off Cora after all.) Alternately funny and unsettling, the book examines the historical record, filling in some of the gaps and offering up new answers for some of the case’s key questions. An excellent example of the nonfiction novel. --David Pitt
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