Saturday, 21 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 12

Concluding my pre-Christmas round-up of reviews of my book over the past year or so...

There has been no particular ranking of the reviews in this list; however, the excellent review The Most Remarkable Woman in England received from Tessa Hadley at the Guardian is one of my favourites.

This is not only because it was a particularly high profile positive review, but also because Hadley praised precisely some of the things that worked very hard to achieve in the book, such as capturing both a sense of drama and the authentic details of the language used by various figures in the case.

The image of the crowd outside the Pace trial used in the Guardian review
It really is hard for me to imagine a better opening line to a review of my book: 

'Sometimes life is better than fiction.'

I mean...really. That's a great start.

And then it just gets better from there:

'Is there any novelist who could have got this extraordinary story so perfectly right, inventing it: the violence at the heart of it, the suspense, the succession of revelations, the passions so raw and inchoate that they have a mythic force? And then there's the grand sweep of the narrative, beginning in the bleak poverty of an obscure cottage in the Forest of Dean, acted out finally on the national stage. [...] John Carter Wood's book about the Pace trial works because of his sober and scrupulous assembly of the evidence, quoting the words that were spoken and written at the time so we can feel the textures of the material for ourselves – the found poetry of precise reportage.'

The rest of the review is very well worth reading.

Perhaps it -- or the other reviews that I've considered in this series -- will convince you to take a closer look at The Most Remarkable Woman in England.

And whether you do or don't: Merry Christmas!

Friday, 20 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 11

One of the highlights of the period shortly after the publication of The Most Remarkable Woman in England last year was being interviewed on BBC Radio 4's venerable show 'Woman's Hour'.

I had never previously been interviewed on radio before (though there were several years in an earlier life when I had radio shows of my own on minor, local stations, but that's another story).

Moreover, it was certainly exciting to actually enter what has long been one of my favourite buildings in London: Broadcasting House.

Although there had been some preparatory discussion with the show's producers about possible topics, I went into the interview with Jenni Murray without really knowing what I would be asked.

So I was certainly fairly keyed up when I got into the studio.

Jenni Murray, though, is a very skilled interviewer: although she makes it seem easy, she manages to ask very well crafted questions and to subtly shape the discussion.

As interviewee, I had the sense of being offered a very well-defined space to fill. This all helped me to stay succinct and not begin endlessly waffling on, as is occasionally...well, OK, wont.

As to the interview, you can judge for yourself: my segment is still available from the BBC Radio 4 website.

In the brief period of time we had to chat after the interview, Jenni said some very nice things to me about the book. I asked later whether she might be willing to make a public summary of those statements, and she agreed.

So, she described The Most Remarkable Woman as:

'A fascinating analysis of one woman's domestic disaster, the power of the press and public opinion. Loved it!' 

The whole experience was very rewarding (also for getting the chance to chat with Martha Wainwright who gave a live performance on that show); the same can be said about my second BBC interview, with Anna King for BBC Radio Gloucestershire.

Sadly, though, that one is no longer online.

So if you can't quite get enough of hearing my voice, I suppose you're out of luck.


The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 10

Continuing my pre-Christmas round-up of reviews of my book over the past year...

Another one of the more academic reviews of The Most Remarkable Woman in England appeared at the open-access crime history journal Law, Crime and History.

There, Tony Ward opened his review of my book with a striking 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)

Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 9

Continuing my pre-Christmas round-up of reviews of my book over the past year...

The issue of attitudes toward gender in the 1920s is a central issue in The Most Remarkable Woman in England, hence it's been gratifying to see the book receiving positive comments from historians experienced in that field. 

At Gender & History, Gwyneth Nair (co-author of a book on the Victorian poisoning murder trial of Madeleine Smith) thought that the book could have emphasised analysis more than narrative, and she suggests that I might have made more comparisons of the Pace case with even more trials of women than I do.

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 hope to have more to say about the issue of inter-war gender, as I'm currently reading Lucy Bland's fascinating book Modern Women on Trial.

We'll see how the Christmas season goes, time-wise....

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 8.

Among the various academic reviews that have appeared of The Most Remarkable Woman in England, that by Matthew Houlbrook was especially nice:

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.)

I've never met Matthew, but he's the author of some excellent things about crime, media and sexuality in early twentieth-century Britain, so he knows whereof he speaks.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 7

Among the positive reviews The Most Remarkable Woman in England received was one in the Literary Review from historian Dominic Sandbrook (probably known best recently for his books on 1970s Britain and a number of BBC television documentaries).

There is no version of it online, however, I have a few excerpts below. 

Among other things Sandbrook observes: 

Today, of course, Beatrice Pace is almost completely forgotten. It is to John Carter Wood’s credit, therefore, that in this splendid piece of historical detective work he not only brings her story alive but casts new light on the life of England in the 1920s, a land desperate to return to normality after the First World War, but terrified of the demons lurking in the attic.
Like Kate Summerscale’s prizewinning book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Wood’s account is an engrossing exercise in historical reconstruction, slowly peeling back layer upon layer of the story of Harry and Beatrice Pace.
Wood’s achievement is to use the case to explore the troubled world of the mid-1920s, a period when, as the Daily Herald remarked, ‘nine people out of ten follow the meagre official details and the billowing rumours of an actual murder mystery more eagerly and breathlessly than the most devoted detective “fan.”’
Wood thinks the jury came to the right verdict, though it is a measure of his immaculately researched, fluently written and utterly compelling book that he allows readers to come to their own conclusions. For my own part, I rather think there was more to Beatrice Pace than met the eye. Who really killed Harry Pace? You had better read the book and decide for yourself.

'Decide for yourself.' Hmm. Sounds about right.

And I believe there is a holiday coming.

(Quotes from the Dec-Jan 2012/13 issue of the Literary Review.)

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 6

Continuing my pre-Christmas round-up of reviews of my book over the past year...

A couple of very positive things were said about the book even before it was actually published: in the 'blurbs' that were gained by sending out a pre-publication version of the main text to a couple of experts in the field.

So, while they're not technically 'reviews' they certainly have review-like qualities and, in a spirit of Christmas generosity, can be included here.

The two back-of-the-book blurbs we succeeded in getting were from two renowned historians, Clive Emsley (Professor Emeritus of History at the Open University) and Joanna Bourke (Professor of History at Birkbeck College).

I happened to meet Joanna for the first time in 2007 when I was actually giving one of the very first conference papers based upon my then still quite early research into the Pace murder trial. She was enthusiastic about the story from the beginning, becoming one of the many people who were very encouraging along the (long) way from the start of the project to publication.

For her blurb, she wrote: 
'This is history as murder-mystery. John Carter Wood tells a spellbinding story of murder, using the trials of the accused (Beatrice Pace) to reflect the nature of celebrity culture, the legal system, and gender relations in 1920s Britain. The fundamental question remains: did Beatrice Pace kill her husband? You will have to read the book to find out!'

For anyone interested in crime and policing history, Clive of course needs no introduction. (You can find a review of his latest book -- on the history of crime and the British military -- here.) And he also said some characteristically kind things about my book:

'The trial of Beatrice Pace was one of the most sensational news stories in inter-war Britain. In this thoroughly researched and clearly-argued study, John Carter Wood is not solely concerned with the usual question of whether or not Mrs Pace was guilty. Rather he also focuses on the period's celebrity culture, the role of the press, the development of public interest and the police. In so doing, he has produced a model for modern social and cultural historians.' 

High praise indeed from someone whose work has been influential on my own development as a historian of crime and justice.

Clive also very generously gave a speech at the shared book launch event for The Most Remarkable Woman in England and two other crime-history related titles from Manchester University Press last year. 

Seems like ages ago now, but it was only last year...

Thursday, 12 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 5

Continuing my pre-Christmas round-up of reviews of my book over the past year...

While there's something great about all positive reviews, of course, getting them from friends is even nicer.

And it's hardly as if that's a foregone conclusion: among academics, sometimes your friends can be your worst critics.

So it was a relief to see Andrew Hammel's review not only so positive but also so clear about why it was positive:

Yet the Pace case was more than a headline-grabber. The long interrogations of Mrs. Pace prompted outrage at Scotland Yard's 'third-degree' tactics, contributing to an emerging wave of civil-rights activism in 1920s England. The trial also highlighted the binds of economic dependence and discrimination which kept working-class women trapped in abusive marriages. John Carter Wood writes with verve and elegance, weaving insights into the broader social ramifications of this trial without losing the thread courtroom drama that makes the book such a compelling read. He has also done much original research, clearing up questions that previous accounts left unanswered and providing dozens of illustrations, some of which have come from previously-inaccessible private archives. The result is a vivid portrayal not just of one woman's fate, but of a society in transition. Highly recommended! 

Andrew's own book -- Ending the Death Penalty: The European Experience in Global Perspective -- is also 'highly recommended' if I do say so myself.

As is his blog.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 4

Continuing my pre-Christmas round-up of reviews of my book over the past year... 

The shortest comment in the Twelve Reviews of Christmas appeared, appropriately enough, on Twitter not long after The Most Remarkable Woman in England appeared.

It was written by Harvard psychology professor, Steven Pinker, who tweeted:

'A fascinating  real-life murder story: John Carter Wood's The Most Remarkable Woman in England.' 

I had had the great pleasure of being able to tell Steve (quite extensively) about the case and my research into it in person when we met at a violence history conference in Switzerland the year before that.

We had come to know each other starting in about 2007 via an extensive email  correspondence while he was working on his bestselling book The Better Angels of Our Nature, a signed copy of which arrived here shortly after the conference. 

I was therefore very pleased to be able to give him a copy of The Most Remarkable Woman in England in return.

It's not every day, after all, that your book gets recommended by one of the world's leading thinkers

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 3

Continuing my pre-Christmas round-up of reviews of my book over the past year... 

One of my favourite comments about the book came unexpectedly shortly before last Christmas, when crime novelist Nicola Upson selected The Most Remarkable Woman in England as her 'favourite crime book of the year':

Just for once, my crime book of the year isn’t a novel, but a factual account. In 1928, a quarryman called Harry Pace died of arsenic poisoning and his wife, Beatrice, was tried for his murder. John Carter Wood’s account of the case and trial has it all: suspense; surprise; and a searing account of one woman’s life, marriage, and journey from poverty and obscurity to celebrity and notoriety.

Wood is brave enough to allow much of an incredible story to tell itself through newspaper accounts, letters and Beatrice’s private papers, and the book is all the richer for it. And because it’s a true story, he has no choice but to include some of the more incredible plot elements that a novelist might lose courage with! A fascinating snapshot of interwar England, brilliantly brought to life.

I wasn't familiar with Upson's writing before then (for a crime historian I read very little crime fiction, actually...somehow I feel it'd be a bit of a busman's holiday), but her historically set novels certainly sound intriguing.

So they're now on my list.

In any case, I was (and remain) very pleased by what she had to say about my book.  

Monday, 9 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 2

Continuing my pre-Christmas round-up of reviews of my book over the past year... 

One of the early reviews of The Most Remarkable Woman in England appeared in the Times Higher Education (...despite their name change I still can hardly resist mentally adding 'Supplement'...) by June Purvis.

She wrote:

The Most Remarkable Woman in England is an intriguing book. It not only raises pertinent questions about the use of “evidence” to build a criminal case but also reveals how debates about gender roles, domestic violence and justice for the poor erupted at one particular cultural moment in inter-war Britain.

The review does a good job of summarising the main points of the case and my analysis of it, and then concludes:

And so, dear reader, did Beatrice Pace really do it? Wood believes the decision to acquit her was correct and that it is plausible that Harry committed suicide in a fit of depression. But, like all good mysteries, it is up to you to make up your own mind after carefully reviewing the “evidence”, sometimes contradictory, presented here. This book will be an invaluable aid to those interested in the history of criminal justice and British society in the 1920s.

Yes, I must agree: I think it will!

One minor quibble: Purvis wrote in the opening of the review that I became interested in the case 'nearly five decades later' (i.e., after the trial). She meant nearly eight, I presume: five decades after the Pace trial I was still in primary school.

An easy mistake to make, and certainly forgiveable considering the positive verdict.

But I feel old enough as it is, let's not make me any older.

Friday, 6 December 2013

The Twelve Reviews of Christmas, part 1

This is only the second Christmas season since the release of The Most Remarkable Woman in England, and I thought it an opportune time to revisit some of the very nice things that have been written and said about the book since it was published late last year.

Coincidentally, a new review of the book appeared today, and since it was so thoughtful and positive, I thought I would make it the first of my (cleverly seasonally themed) feature: The Twelve Reviews of Christmas.

At her blog, Nose in a Book, Kate Gardner finds much to praise in my history of the Pace murder trial, and I was particularly pleased that she emphasised some of those things that I had specifically aimed for in writing it.

It's nice, after all, when you work very hard to achieve a certain kind of effect and then succeed.

For instance, she writes:

[T]his is a really well written book. ... I have tried to read a few historical books written for a popular audience and generally I’ve struggled. Even the super successful The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which it’s hard not to compare this to, didn’t entirely get it right in my view.

The way in which Wood does get it right is, to begin with, his identifying what it was about the case that made its players instantly famous. He has some very smart things to say about celebrity culture being tied to social and political changes, such as women’s liberation or distrust of the police force. Wood quotes extensively from original sources, which serves two purposes: you are left in no doubt as to where each fact/opinions comes from, and you get a real flavour of the time and place.

But perhaps my favourite comment is this one:

I know that this book worked in a narrative sense because for most of the time I was reading it I felt a prickling at the back of my neck that I only get from a good crime book, whether true or fictional.

That, dear reader, is high praise indeed.

And -- perhaps -- it's just the thing for the crime-story fan on your Christmas list. Don't you think?

After all: according to her blog, the author of this review received the book last year as a Christmas present.

So, spread the joy, I say.

Please do read the rest of the review at Nose in a Book. And, while you're there, check out the other reviews.