A painstakingly researched and totally absorbing account of a once sensational, now forgotten, murder from 1935. Alma Rattenbury and her young lover, George Stoner, 18, faced the hangman in an Old Bailey trial following the murder of her husband, distinguished architect Francis Rattenbury. The case shocked, horrified, electrified the nation and went on to inspire plays and TV dramas.
Francis Rattenbury was a rather ratty old husband, pushing 70, his best years behind him. Alma was a flamboyant 43-year-old, a former musical prodigy, now stuck in a loveless, sexless marriage in a suburb of Bournemouth.
She fell passionately for teenage Stoner when he was taken on as the family’s driver, and all the fevered elements of a drawing-room tragedy were finally in place. In March 1935 Rattenbury had his brains bashed in and the lovers were soon in the dock.
Author Sean O’Connor, who is also a director and producer in TV, radio and film, conjures the mood and prejudices of the era for a superb account of the trial and its heartbreaking aftermath.
Great research, vivid writing, historical context – the best true crime can give compelling insight into the kind of personalities that commit notorious crimes. In no particular order, here are 10 true-crime books that I particularly admire…
Oswald’s Tale by Norman Mailer 1995
Forget the grassy knoll, mafia hitmen, Castro malcontents, CIA plotters – it was Lee Harvey Oswald what done it. Norman Mailer created a convincing portrait of a pathetic nobody who wanted to make a name for himself. He’d flirted with celebrity by ‘defecting’ to Russia in 1959, marrying a Russian, and attempting to shoot a general. Then, when he heard the President’s motorcade was passing the book depot where he’d just got a job, he reached for his $22 rifle. An unforgettable book.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara 2018
Not many true-crime authors can be said to have solved a historic case. Michelle McNamara, however, may eventually get some credit for the arrest made last year in the Golden State Killer investigation. She was a journalist who wrote here of her obsession with this grotesque series of home rapes and then murders. Sadly, the author died before the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, a former cop suspected or 50 rapes, 13 murders and many burglaries. However, her proposal for the use of ancestral DNA and geographic profiling may have played a part in the police taking a new approach to the unsolved case. An absolutely must-read, genre-busting book.
The language is ripe and the cast – including Timothy Spall and Kenneth Cranham – is excellent. The Diamond Wheezers who burgled the underground safe-deposit company in London’s jewellery district in 2015 is a fascinating true-crime story.
While pulling off this shocking theft, the veteran lags are also gasping, collapsing, falling asleep and taking plenty of toilet breaks.
That light-hearted side is excellently done, scripted by Jeff Pope and Terry Winsor. Pope in particular has a strong record in dramatising serious crime stories for TV, including Appropriate Adult, This Is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper and Mrs Biggs.
Just finished Miles Goslett’s account of the Dr David Kelly affair and it is a disconcerting read.
Dr Kelly was the British scientist and weapons expert who was caught up in the controversy over whether Iraq really had missiles that could threaten Britain with mass destruction in 45 minutes. This claim was used to help justify the West’s attack on the country.
Officials in Tony Blair’s government exposed Dr Kelly as a potential source for the news story that ignited the uproar in 2003. However, there was shock when, having been forced to testify on TV to politicians, Dr Kelly was then found dead in woods near his Oxfordshire home.
The official line from the start was that he had committed suicide. But this is where events became murky, as this riveting book makes clear.
With great skill, journalist Miles Goslett pulls together various strands of complex events. He reveals that what occurred after Dr Kelly was found was carefully managed by the government.
I started watching the Netflix true-crime series, but decided to switch to John Grisham’s book to better absorb these events. The author says in the series that you could not write this story as fiction because no one would believe it.
It’s a really shocking tale of a vicious miscarriage of justice. It involves a rotten police investigation, lamentable courtroom failures and a prosecutor apparently hellbent on enacting his own prejudices.
The town you probably want to avoid in Oklahoma where these events occurred was Ada. The case was the murder of waitress Debra Carter in 1982. Former hometown baseball hero Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz are the two innocents railroaded to jail. Williamson ended up on death row while Fritz got life.
Grisham can’t maintain authorial dispassion while relaying this events, his prose occasionally dripping with sarcasm at the callousness and malignancy of the authorities.
As Fritz states in these pages, ‘When you don’t have any money to defend yourself, you’re at the mercy of the judicial system. Once in the system, it’s almost impossible to get out, even if you’re innocent.’
A powerful book full of villains and wonderful ordinary people fighting for justice. Sadly, Williamson and Fritz lost more than they could ever get back – and the true killer roamed free for years.
Joseph Wambaugh, former LA cop, has had an interesting writing career, spanning fiction and non-fiction. I’ve read several of his books and just finished this true-crime title from 1973.
It recounts events from 1963 when two LAPD officers stopped a pair of small-time but dangerous characters. Greg Powell and Jimmy Lee Smith pulled a gun and took the policemen, Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger, hostage.
The officers were ordered to drive to an onion field near Bakersfield. Campbell was executed but Hettinger managed to escape. My initial feeling when I started reading was not good. The book is written in the style of Truman Capote’s a ‘non-fiction novel’ In Cold Blood. This style and Capote’s reliability as narrator have since been questioned.
So, in The Onion Field we get the participants’ thoughts and dialogue from throughout their lives, which clearly no author can know. My reaction was that this must be a novel, but the spine said non-fiction.