A fan of P.D. James' mysteries, I was pleasantly surprised to discover this true crime book she had written with the historian T.A. Critchley. "The Maul and the Pear Tree" tells the tale of some sinister and disturbing murders that horrified and shocked the London docks in 1811. Through recreating the time period, studying testimony and accounts of the day, both author and historian have crafted an interesting read about not only murder but also about the restrictions of a rudimentary police system in trying to apprehend an otherwise unheard of serial killer.
In December of 1811, seven people were brutally slain. The first victims were the Marr family; a husband, wife, their infant son, and the boy who worked in their shop. All were found beaten to death with their throats cut to the neckbone, including the newborn son. The second victims were the Williamsons, the proprietors of a pub, who were slain in almost exactly the same manner as the Marrs.
The search that had begun with the Marr's murders, continued when the killer struck a second time. The clues were few, but included the murder weapon alluded to in the book's title. The testimony (both real and speculative) was plentiful, and the community was filled with terror and suspicion. The magistrates had an incredible task before them - to capture a killer before he, or they, since the evidence surely represented more than one killer, could strike again.
In 1811, the different policing agencies did not work together, and very rarely shared the information they received with another branch. This combined with sketchy details, suspicious neighbors, and the number of superfluous informants who came forward with information made a virtual circus of the trial process. Arrested and jailed on circumstantial evidence, a man by the name of John Williams was assumed to be the ghastly murderer that everyone had been searching for. Yet before he could be convicted of any crime, he was found hanged in his jail cell, apparently a self-murder. Yet the evidence shows that more than one person was involved in the murders of these two families. James and Critchley lay the groundwork for who the accomplices, or even who the mastermind behind these murders, might be. The author and historian even call into question whether or not Williams was set up and murdered by the real killer in order to guarantee his own escape. The truth shall never be known about the killer's identity, but "The Maul and the Pear Tree" is a highly informative, entertaining speculation about the Radcliffe Highway Murders.