London On My Mind: The City of Sherlock Holmes

This article first appeared in Mystery Readers Journal, Volume 27, No. 2, Spring 2011, London Mysteries II issue, published by Mystery Readers International. Issues are available for purchase individually or by subscription.

It’s a typical day for a storyteller and crime historian like me. The setting is an animal preserve on the north shore of Long Island. It is late afternoon in spring. Fifty people, sitting on folding chairs, face me.

I’m perched precariously on a rock to regale them with tales of crime involving the furred and feathered. I’m hoping not to be drowned out by the roar of a caged cougar, or the shrieks of the nearby peacocks, who are evidently in a state of erotic hysteria.

As the sun dips, I describe the mysterious disappearance of the famous bloodhounds, Burgo and Barnaby, while tracking Jack the Ripper through fogbound Victorian London. Inevitably, even in an animal preserve on Long Island, London is part of my story.

London has always been on my mind.

Even before I made the acquaintance of Mr. Sherlock Holmes in my home territory of the Bronx, even before I read about the Dickensian miseries of workhouses and orphans, my fascinated immersion in the original, acerbic “Mary Poppins” had implanted the city in my very active imagination. London, from the fecund pigeons of Trafalgar Square to the idyllic stretches of Hampstead Heath was in many ways more real to me than the New York in which I lived.

In this fantasy I was aided and abetted by our family housekeeper, who had arrived in the U. S. from Poland by way of London. She made it clear that a napkin was properly called a “serviette,” a diaper a “nappy,” and that the early supper I was fed as a child was actually my “tea.”

In college, my anglophilia grew apace and kept company with my interest in atmospheric homicide. As a theater arts major, I studied dramatic works of Jacobean revenge, Elizabethan hauntings, and Victorian suspense. I was cast as Bella in “Angel Street” (a play set in 1890 London, of course) and played both Ophelia and Lady Macbeth (roles written by a very well-known London-based playwright).

This necessitated long discussions with my pathologist cousin as to the details of death, which led in turn to quite a bit of time in autopsy rooms and crime laboratories. Blood and guts and dramatic literature have a long conjoined history.

Off stage, in between muddling through turgid tomes on the influence of the English monarchy on Globe Theater productions, I delved into crime novels featuring sensitive London detectives with complicated, bittersweet romantic lives. I read accounts of true crimes solved by science, and grew familiar with an entire panoply of Victorian poisoning trials, not to mention the odd bludgeoning and occasional stabbing. I studied the memoirs and biographies of long dead pathologists. I immersed myself in Sherlock Holmes adventures and grew increasingly riveted by the inherent dramatic tension between English understatement, sardonic humor and bloody murder.

Which is most likely why, decades later, weaving these divergent threads together, I found myself in the odd business of writing and performing one‑person presentations about the history and folklore of crime and forensic science—and why my beloved London was always part of the show. I could offer detailed descriptions of Regent’s Park, The Strand, Waterloo Bridge, Whitechapel, and explain exactly how a villain could walk through them, hide in them, live in them. I could conjure up the fog, the sound of footsteps, the splatter of rain on ancient cobblestones.

But this was only an actor’s license—because I had never seen these things for myself.

It was not from want of trying. It was due to a truly rotten sense of timing. It seemed every time my husband, Bill, and I tried to plan a trip to London, a family illness or a crisis at his job or mine interfered.

And I must admit—in the interests of full disclosure—on a few occasions, I managed to sabotage things myself, with my weakness for acquiring black Labrador puppies who needed immediate training during what was supposed to be vacation time. (This wasn’t without advantages—honoring the adage that nothing in a writer’s life should go to waste—I sold an article about such an abortive London trip to the New York Times; “Labrador Love” the editor headed it. The piece was illustrated with a drawing of a Lab pup enthusiastically chewing a picture of the London skyline.)

The worm turned in 1993 just when we were busily planning the imminent wedding of our younger daughter. I was made an offer it would hurt to refuse. It involved a trip to England, first class on the Queen Elizabeth 2, for my husband and me. The work was minimal—I had only to give two lectures on crime during the crossing to Southampton. Bill and I considered, with anguish, the dicey timing. There were invitations to send, dresses to be fitted, flowers to be ordered, seating plans to be decided on. What sort of parents could leave at such a time?

Evidently, our sort. We packed, dumped the wedding arrangements in our two daughters’ willing hands, advised our Resident Labradors, Dickens and Poppins, to be gentle with the house sitter, and headed for the ship. We were armed with a reservation at a Hampstead bed and breakfast, and, courtesy of a pal at the Suffolk County Crime Laboratory a contact number at the Scotland Yard Forensic Science Laboratory, as well as a comprehensive London A to Z.

We arrived in London with an odd sense of home-coming. The city seemed to resonate with echoes of the old crimes whose details I knew so well. The reminders were constant.

The B and B in which we stayed at Frognal and Finchley had been the last address of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the eminent if controversial pathologist. Sir Bernard had given testimony with fatal results to the accused in over 250 cases, and as Richard Gordon, the physician/author acutely noted, if Spilsbury had been mistaken in only 8 of these, he had been responsible for the loss of more innocent life than Jack the Ripper.

The neighborhood of Hampstead whispered murder to me. Finchley Road, for instance, was the scene of the dispatching of Stanley Setty in 1949. He was done in by one Brian Donald Hume, who finished the job by dismembering his victim and wrapping him in parcels, which he then dropped into the sea by plane. The remains were discovered, a trial ensued, but Hume got off—enabling him to kill another chap in Switzerland some time later.

Not far away is the Magdala Tavern, in front of which blonde Ruth Ellis shot and killed her racing car lover David Blakely. She was executed in 1955, the last woman hanged in England. Her post mortem report stated that her body showed “no sign of disease” but betrayed “an odor of brandy.”

Visiting the Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard) Forensic Laboratory in Lambeth, we were taken to lunch by the Deputy Director, and made the interesting discovery that the Met had it’s very own wine label, a nicety not given to NYPD. Walking through the  Lambeth area, I inevitably thought of Dr. Thomas Cream, the physician/serial killer who haunted the neighborhood in 1891, plying unsuspecting ladies of the evening with “pills for their complexion.”

Every part of London reminded me of old cases—Florence Bravo and the fatal glass of Burgundy her husband drank in 1876, Ada Bartlett, and her husband’s mysterious death from chloroform . . . and of course this led us to an afternoon at the Old Bailey where these cases were famously tried, as well as to the pub across the street, to watch the barristers and solicitors lifting lunchtime liquids.

Since that trip, Bill and I have returned to the UK a number of times. When an editor at John Wiley & Sons asked me to write a book on the history of forensic science, to be called The Science of Sherlock Holmes, my first thought was that it gave us a great excuse for another trip.

London was on my mind again.

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