The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable: A True Tale of Passion, Poison, and Pursuit

Oneworld. Oct. 2013. 416p. ISBN 9781780742434. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781780742441. CRIME
Baxter's (An Irresistible Temptation: The True Story of Jane New and a Colonial Scandal) latest historical title reads like a novel. It's not a strictly academic work but rather a fascinating glimpse into a point in time in England's history, when things were about to change. The "electric constable" referred to is the electric telegraph, which made it possible for the suspect in this bizarre and scandalous murder case to be apprehended—the first time in the nation's history that this method was successful in such a case. Frankly, the telegraph plays a minor role here but does allow a well-researched and well-written story to be told about a dodgy Quaker, his former servant/mistress, his wife, a few vaguely corrupt scientists, and a vial of prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide). Baxter's research, while not footnoted, appears thorough and dogged, and she doesn't seem inclined to invent facts or conjecture about the case if facts are unknown. If this book lacks anything, it would be explanations of the intricacies of the early 19th-century British legal system, which contains terms and players unfamiliar to modern American audiences. This title is easily readable, interesting, and enjoyable, especially when one compares the techniques of the 1840s chemists and doctors with today's television and real-life forensic scientists.
VERDICT Recommended for true crime and historical crime buffs, those interested in early forensic science, and general readers.
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