Monday, 28 July 2014

"Quite simply an absorbing read"

The June issue of the English Historical Review contains a very fine review of The Most Remarkable Woman in England which is all the more enjoyable because it was written by Adrian Bingham, who is not only one of the leading historians of the twentieth-century British press but also someone whose own work influenced my approach to some of the topics in my book on the Pace murder trial.

I'm particularly pleased by the review as it is attentive to a difficult problem with which I wrestled throughout the more than five years I spent researching and writing the book: how to combine an exciting story that would appeal to as broad an audience as possible (essentially anyone who is interested in real-life human drama and not overly averse to endnotes) while also maintaining enough academic street cred for my professional historian peers to still take it seriously.

Or, as Bingham puts it in his review:  

What is the best way for academic historians to broaden their audience? How should they reach out to the much-sought-after ‘general reader’? One option (the Niall Ferguson or Simon Schama route) is to produce bold grand narratives and dazzle the public with new ways of looking at the ‘big picture’. An alternative, pursued here by John Carter Wood, is to narrow the scale, and to focus upon a dramatic human story, which can then be used to illuminate the period in question.

Happily, he finds that I have succeeded in this effort: 

The spectacular success of Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2009), based on a murder mystery that unfolded in Wiltshire in 1860, seems to have created a demand for real-life historical detective stories, and Wood has produced a pacy, scholarly and thought-provoking contribution to the genre. ...

Although this book is clearly designed to appeal beyond the academy, it will be of interest to scholars.... Firstly, it is quite simply an absorbing read. The case itself is a fascinating one, and Wood does it full justice. He writes crisply and vividly, and shows a real empathy for his protagonists, teasing out the likely motivations for their actions.... He has clearly learned well from the crime novelists, such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, who so entertained the British public in the 1920s.

At the end, Bingham raises a potential problem that was always on my mind (and which plagued my efforts to publish the book until I made contact with the wonderful people at Manchester University Press):

There is a danger that books like this may fall between two stools. Wood is far more measured in his approach than a writer such as Summerscale, and he is too scrupulous a historian to let his imagination take him further than the evidence allows in order to entertain the reader. At the same time, some of those working in the field would undoubtedly have been interested in seeing some of the underlying themes developed further. 

However, there's a very happy ending:

On its own terms, though, as a forensic historical examination of one of the decade’s most intriguing murder cases, this is an undoubted success. I hope it gets the wider readership it deserves.

It goes without saying, I suppose, that I do too.

I've had a fairly detailed look at reviews of the book at this blog, and there is also a shorter and more concise reviews page if you just want to skim all the nice things that people have been saying about it.

And if you feel so inclined, please do order The Most Remarkable Woman in England from your local bookstore, from Manchester University Press or from the online retailer of your choice.

Rumour has it that you may be glad you did. 


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