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DANCING FOR THE HANGMAN by Martin Edwards: Book Review

Say the name “Dr. Crippen,” and every reader of crime novels, thrillers, and detective fiction will know who you’re talking about.  Hawley Crippen, M.D., was one of the most notorious criminals in British history. Although he is accused of murdering “only” one person, that person was his second wife, and the thought of a medical man committing such a crime shocked 1910 Edwardian society to its core.  But was he guilty?

Dancing For The Hangman is told mostly in the doctor’s voice, using the journals he kept in prison plus some newspaper articles.  As the story opens, Crippen has just been tried and convicted for his wife’s murder and is awaiting death by hanging.  The book goes back and forth in time, starting with Crippen’s early life in America, his first marriage, and his romance and marriage to Cora Turner, an aspiring if not very talented singer/actress.  At first, after his unhappy marriage with his first wife who died of a stroke while pregnant with their second child, the relationship with Cora fulfills his sexual dreams.  He leaves (perhaps abandons is a more accurate word) his young son with his parents and he and his new bride leave for Europe to pursue his desire for wealth and social position.  He’s a homeopathic physician with little compassion for his patients and a great desire to push pills to enrich himself.

After a few years living with a bipolar Cora who herself was unfaithful, he begins a relationship with a young typist in his office, Ethel LeNeve.  And that leads to murder.  Or does it?

To the very end Crippen was certain his death sentence would be reversed, that it was a miscarriage of justice.  His wife’s death was an “accident,” his dismembering her body and burying part of it in their garden was a “necessity,” his flight with his lover to Canada was done only in “self-defense.”

Edwards does an excellent job bringing the doctor to life.  Crippen has so many blind spots and faults that it’s hard to know where to begin.  To me he was narcissistic, self-absorbed, unprofessional, an unscrupulous business partner, an uncaring father and son; I could go on and on.  But was he a murderer?

To this day, there is dispute over Hawley Crippen’s guilt or innocence. What weighed most heavily against him was his common-law marriage to the young Ethel, some 17 years his junior, and their flight aboard the S.S. Montrose, with Ethel disguised as a young boy.  But as they approached Father Point, Quebec, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Dew came out on deck to arrest Crippen.

An afterward by the author gives the reader the follow-up of what happened to the various personae in Crippen’s life–the ship’s captain, who alerted Scotland Yard; Inspector Dew; Ethel Le Neve, among others.  But as Edwards notes, no one knows for certain what truly happened at the infamous 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Camden Road, Holloway, London, England.

You can find more information on Martin Edwards at his web site.