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  • Caitlyn Lynch

Book Review: The Lady In The Cellar by Sinclair McKay

This might be one of the most incredible true-crime books I’ve ever read - and I’ve read plenty. If you wrote this case as fiction, it would be derided as too ridiculous to be believed. However, it all really happened in the late 1870s, and reading it is an absolutely fascinating insight into both the lives of everyday Londoners and the methods of police investigations at the time.

(I also found out about the Illustrated Police News, which was basically the first printed sensationalist tabloid and boasted headlines The Onion and The National Enquirer would both be proud of, but I digress).

The author’s research is incredibly well done, and he weaves direct quotes from court transcripts, police interviews, newspaper articles and other sources seamlessly into his narration of the story, while using beautifully descriptive language to paint a picture of London in the latter part of the 19th century, with uncontrolled immigration bringing skilled migrants from across Europe to ply their trades serving the rising middle class. At the time, there were rising numbers of domestic servants in London households too, and an awkward dynamic between servants and masters who were really not far apart at all on the social scale.

These dynamics and relationships are superbly explored in the book, as they are essential to understanding what may have happened in the case which transfixed a nation. Some of the things which happened are frankly incredible to modern sensibilities, such as the partly decayed body of the victim being displayed to the public in an attempt to get an identification. Queues for viewing stretched around the block. When I mentioned this to a friend who has an interest in Victorian literature, she laughed and said “Yeah, Victorians were hardcore!”

Quite apart from a fascinating look at a never-solved murder, this is a wonderful resource for any writer interested in writing Victorian fiction. Sinclair McKay’s writing will plant you deep in the 1870s and 1880s, alongside tradesmen rising to the middle class, servants who were choosing their own positions and demanding better working conditions, a London which was thriving and growing at a rate faster than many could even comprehend.

This might be the best true crime book I’ve ever read. It’s certainly the best I’ve read this year. If you have the slightest interest in Victorian era crime and police work, you will definitely want to read it. Wish I could give it more than five stars.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book for review through NetGalley.

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