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Home > Reviews > London Murders

London Murders

Author David Long

ISBN No 9780750995054

Review date 13/08/2022

No of pages 224

Publisher The History Press

Publisher URL

Year of publication 06/11/2020


Our Review


£ 8.95 paperback

Is it proper to want to read, and even to like, this book? The author takes this on at the very start: "People love a good murder."

What you do get from this always readable book are about 60 cases - a small fraction of the total of murders in London in the last couple of hundred years, but all with some fascination. Commendably Long has covered all corners of the city, not just the easy or obvious parts, the West End and East End; and has spread himself in terms of time, too, going well back into the 1800s, and including a few 21st century crimes.

What you don't get is anything particularly original, or any literary sources; the essay The Decline of the English Murder by George Orwell (whose literary career was based in London) comes to mind, as does the Graham Greene novel The Ministry of Fear, to name only one work of crime literature set in London. Nor do you get any systematic considering of such questions as: did motives or weapons change with time? Did public attitudes change to murder - the ultimate taboo crime - and punishment of murderers? If a property was the site of a murder, does it hurt its market price? David Long is patchy in terms of telling us what physically remains of the places in the stories, although in fairness he is also the author of such History Press titles as London's 100 Strangest Places, and London's 100 Most Extraordinary Buildings.

Jack the Ripper, Crippen ('a classic love triangle'), the Kray brothers, Haigh, Christie, Ruth Ellis; Dennis Nilsen (recently dramatised for TV, starring David Tennant). Each case gripped the public when brought to justice (something for the author to dwell on, as he is a journalist and reviewer by trade), and still are part of popular culture. They also - consider the 'Ripper' tours of the now regenerated and gentrified Spitalfields - are rooted in London. The murder scenes or the homes of the murderers - quite often the same places - are named in each case of David Long's, and despatched in three pages or so. On that basis, the Ripper gets no more detailed treatment than long-forgotten East End cases (on either side of the Ripper are cases from 1811, 1875 and 1902, and 'Peter the Painter' of 1910; which mutated into the Siege of Sydney Street).

Whether that choice of treatment works, like so much in life, will be a matter of opinion. The fact is that Jack the Ripper still has books devoted to him, as do other celebrated cases, if we want to know more about them, we have numerous books to turn to for detail (there are even Ripper computer games, Long notes). He was wise to rip (pardon the pun) through each case rather than get bogged down ever. Not that he was ever likely to get bogged down, as the material is so full of the macabre, that Long pulls out (the Ripper's tally of five murders was 'relatively modest'). And Long has a journalist's eye for human interest. In the case of the Ripper, for instance, Long notes that arguably another victim was Sir Charles Warren, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, for his 'inability to find the killer led to him being forced out of office by public opinion'.

Why did the Ripper's killing stop, as suddenly as it had started? Long poses the question but does not answer it - on to the next case! The murder (shot in the head) in March 1966, when Ronnie Kray 'casually' shot dead a rival gang member in the Blind Beggar pub on Whitechapel Road plus 39-day court case is over inside three pages. We do get the name of the song on the jukebox (younger readers may need to have that explained to them) at the time of the murder - The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Any More, by the Walker Brothers. The pub's still there to visit, a 'gin palace' dating from 1894.

If you are after something more substantial - or at least a change of pace from the relentless cases, apart from arguably tasteless or unrespectful lines about suicides on the London Underground, for instance - this book is not for you. Take Countess Teresa Lubienska, talking of the Tube, for example. Long merely mentions her murder on a platform at Gloucester Road in 1957. The press covered the case as fully as the police tried to find the knife-murderer. Was it a political act - given Poland's tortured 20th century history; the countess was a survivor of Nazi concentration camp imprisonment. Or was this white-haired old lady knifed for taking issue with young hoodlums?

Perhaps Long's breezy treatment has a point - for it may be wrong to seek a purpose, or meaning, in murders that could be random, senseless, and unsolved (at least in the countess' case).

The first case in the section on the West End, the 1921 political gunning down of Field Marshal Sir Henry Hughes Wilson, was featured in the November 2018 print edition of Professional Security magazine. As a break from news, the pages showed some historical cases of assassination and shortcomings or entire lack of security of public figures. Pictured is the doorstep of 36 Eaton Place in SW1 where the assassins cornered Sir Henry. As but for the parked cars the area looks much as it did then, it's possible and strangely moving to follow in the footsteps of the assassins (one was one-legged) as they fled, eventually cornered in Ebury Street, as Long reports.

Other high-profile cases are the Countess of Lucan (presumed murdered by her husband) and Alexander Litvinenko; the playwright Joe Orton, found hammered to death at his top-floor flat at 25 Noel Road, N1.

Far less well known is Hendrick Neimasz - the last man to hang in London, at Wandsworth Prison ('the execution chamber has been converted into a TV lounge for the staff').

Oddly, as Long presumably was not short of cases to choose from, he included some that are far from certainly murder; such as that of the German ambassador Dr Leopold von Hoesch, thought to have been bumped off by Nazis in 1936 as unfriendly to the Hitler regime. At least the case serves to allow Long to paint the alarming picture of Grenadier Guards marching alongside German troops through central London, as the coffin (with swastika flag draped) went to Victoria Station for transit home. The 1933 case of Ernest Oldham sounds more like murder, by the Russian secret service. Oldham was a cipher clerk at the Foreign Office who was betraying his country for money to the Soviets. It's well believable that they killed him once he outlived his usefulness. As Long put it, Oldham was found at his flat at 31 Pembroke Gardens, W8, 'wearing night attire and with his head in the oven'.

Another case not technically murder is of the boxer Freddie Mills, 'found shot through the eye in his own car with a fairground rifle propped up between his legs'; official verdict, suicide. Might Mills have been a serial killer; or killed by organised crime? Ditto a questionable verdict of suicide for banker Roberto Calvi, found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge.

As the author rolls out case after case, you either respond by recalling a once notorious story, long forgotten - such as Giorgi Markov, the Bulgarian anti-Communist exile assassinated by poison fired into his leg by unknown man with an umbrella on Waterloo Bridge in 1978 - or learn for the first time.

Each reader will decide on their own most grisly or remarkable case; maybe the boy's body found in the Thames in 2001, 'spotted by a pedestrian on the bridge, floating upstream in the direction of the Tate Modern and the Globe Theatre'. adds the author helpfully; and named Adam by police. The suspicion is that the murder was ritualistic.