There are an increasing number of opportunities in crime history to expand the often-denigrated genre of the "true crime" book. The long-established popular genre, defined by lurid red and black covers and shocking images, is still with us, but happily we now have publishers and writers who are interested in monographs that explore the social context of crime and look for significance.
John Benson has done exactly that in The Wolverhampton Tragedy, the story of a Midlands drunkard and rake who exploited his social position and considerable power to womanise, cause mayhem and wreck several lives. But did he also murder his mistress in December 1908? That is the key question of this intriguing book.
Benson structures the inquiry very sensibly, moving cautiously through the biography of Edward Lawrence, heir to the licensed victualler empire established by his father Joseph at the end of the 19th century.
He writes with a sense of the drama and sensation of the story, but adds the meticulous care and scrutiny of the academic historian. This means that the reader never misses any social context or consideration of issues such as class, drinking culture and "respectability" in the pursuit of this dangerous man let loose with money and influence in a world of dependent working-class victims.
The questions asked and the framework established are neatly expressed in an introduction, including the succinct point that "Edward Lawrence's life provides an intriguing insight into some of the issues surrounding class - and gender - relationships in late Victorian and Edwardian England". Benson is clear that one great virtue of crime history is that, because it is interested in transgression, it opens up human relationships and their immediate subcultures, and often these insights are not possible in other varieties of social history.
Edward Lawrence was found in a room with the dying Ruth Hadley, his mistress. She had been shot and there was a gun in Lawrence's pocket. There were no witnesses, so subsequent events involved the court process, from the coroner's inquest to the assize court at Stafford.
That is all very commonplace; but into this particular tale we must introduce the amazing barrister, Edward Marshall Hall, a charismatic man whose artistry in trial was truly remarkable, as he was never afraid to be not only emotional, but downright histrionic if the situation demanded it.
Benson handles that phase of the narrative judiciously, while still retaining the essence of that celebrated advocate, at his best, as he saved the neck of his alcoholic client.
This book demonstrates what many varieties of criminology and social history suggest: that from an intensive study of the local, we find fresh perspectives on the large scale, on the metanarrative of a period.
Recent successful books in this category, notably Sian Busby's The Cruel Mother: A Family Ghost Laid to Rest (2004) and James Sharpe's Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman (2005), have had a strong influence in this respect. The Wolverhampton Tragedy will be welcome in that genre: the objectives Benson outlines at the opening of the book are amply met and examined.
Underlying the crime story itself and all the related social influences, there is also the story of a provincial mindset and a nasty abuse of business influence. The focus of the biography, Lawrence, even after his acquittal, ended up in yet more trouble with the law. He is never a lovable rogue in this book, despite the sometimes farcical events going on around him.
Benson's book is highly recommended to readers and scholars interested in the seedy side of late Victorian and Edwardian middle-class life. Although much to do with the unpleasant Lawrence may be guessed, there are some surprises and shocks here, too. But in the end, Marshall Hall steals the limelight, and readers eager to learn more about him may wish to seek out Edward Marjoribanks' classic biography of the great man.
The Wolverhampton Tragedy: Death and the 'Respectable' Mr Lawrence
By John Benson. Carnegie Publishing 176pp, £8.95. ISBN 9781859361955. Published 24 March 2009