Sunday, 29 September 2013

Academic reviews roundup

After the slew of more popular-press reviews of and comments on The Most Remarkable Woman in England (which were resoundingly positive) a few academic and specialist reviews have recently begun to appear.

From the beginning, I had aimed to write a book that would both satisfy the specialist and fascinate the general reader. As I discovered, striking that balance is very difficult: indeed, these are imperatives that very often pull in opposite directions. (Having taken a look through the book again recently, I felt confirmed in the view that -- far more often than not -- I managed to hit the right note.)

As is their nature, this first round of academic reviews are more subdued in tone, but I'm pleased to see that they have had many positive things to say about the book.

For example, Matthew Houlbrook writes in Media History:

What became known as the ‘Fetter Hill mystery’ was one of the most sensational criminal cases of the 1920s. Then ‘still relatively new’, the media frenzy that surrounded Beatrice Pace allows John Carter Wood to tease out an engaging and suggestive analysis of the relationship between crime, culture, and politics in a formative historical period (5). The Most Remarkable Woman in England draws on an impressive body of archival research: an extensive survey of local and national newspapers, records of courts, coroners, and police, and (most strikingly) the hundreds of letters Pace received from her supporters at the trial’s conclusion. The result is a rich and textured archeology of a case that unfolded as much through new forms of mass media as the institutions of criminal justice. If the detail sometimes becomes overwhelming, it is hard to imagine a more thorough account of the processes through which crime became news. -- Media History, 19.3 (2013), 391-92.

At Gender & History, Gwyneth Nair thinks that the book could have emphasised analysis more than narrative  and that I might have made more comparisons of the Pace case with even more trials of women than I do. (Please see my above comments about trying to please academic and popular audiences alike.) Nonetheless, she concludes that The Most Remarkable Woman in England is 'a thoughtful, readable account of an intriguing case, and has valuable things to say about the nature of interwar English society.' --Gender & History, 25.2 (2013), 385-86.

(I should perhaps mention that one thing that Houlbrook and Nair share is the minor error of giving me a double-barrelled surname. My actual last name -- as it stands on the spine of the book -- is 'Wood'. 'Carter' is a middle name I use for publications and online to make myself easier to find among the countless other John Woods in the world...) 

At the open-access crime history journal Law, Crime and History, Tony Ward opens his review of my book with an interesting comparison to a television crime drama:

I started reading this book on the evening when the TV crime drama Broadchurch reached its finale, and the parallels are readily apparent: a suspicious death in a small community brings family conflicts to the surface, rumours abound, an arrogant policeman from London comes to investigate, the national press scent a good story, and the family of the deceased find themselves briefly famous.

Ward concludes:

The Most Remarkable Woman in England is a scholarly book and Wood resists any temptation to ‘solve’ the case, though he argues that the suicide theory was plausible and Beatrice was rightly acquitted. He urges historians to take ‘into account both those women who were demonised by the public and unfairly condemned and those who received public support and were – all things considered – treated fairly’ (195). In this respect his work usefully complements studies of women convicted of murder, such as Anette Balinger’s Dead Woman Walking (2000). But if one sees early twentieth century murder trials as a kind of morality play in which the moral invariably serves to reinforce the subordination of women, Beatrice Pace’s trial fits the mould as well as any of those that sent women to the gallows. -- Law, Crime and History, 3.2 (2013), 193-94. (PDF version of the full review)

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