Sunday, May 31, 2009

Misled by a book, and loving it

In August 1849, Frederick Manning and his Swiss wife, Maria, lured a middle-aged moneylender named Patrick O'Connor to their home in the Bermondsey section of London. O'Connor and Mrs. Manning had been lovers prior to her marriage, and probably for awhile afterward too. They shot and clubbed him to death, covered his body with quicklime, and then buried it under their kitchen floor. Maria hurried to O'Connor's rented room, where she stole money and railway share certificates. Then she and Frederick fled in opposite directions: she went to Edinburgh while he sailed to the Channel Islands. When a concerned friend reported O'Connor's disappearance, the police went to the Manning home and discovered the makeshift grave. After a nationwide manhunt, the murderous couple was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death. They were hung at Horsemonger Lane Gaol in November 1849, in front of a raucous crowd.

Using the title alone as a point of reference, London 1849: a Victorian Murder Story appears to be about the Manning case. But it isn't. Michael Alpert has written a social history of London in the year 1849, when the O'Connor murder shocked the city. The first chapter is dedicated to the crime and the apprehension of Frederick and Maria Manning, and the concluding one uses their trial and execution to illustrate the workings of the British justice system. But the rest of the book is an admittedly fascinating look at the daily lives of mid-nineteenth century Londoners: what they ate, where they went for entertainment, how the class system worked, and the waning role of religion in their lives.

Whenever possible, Alpert frames his topic to suggest what the Mannings might have done in a given circumstance. For example, in the chapter about recreation, he proposes that Maria would not have been interested in the Frith paintings at the National Gallery, as she had been a lady's maid in wealthy homes prior to her marriage and probably seen her fill of such masterpieces. When discussing the modes of public transportation available in 1849, Alpert presents a reasonably accurate re-enactment of Frederick Manning's flight from London to the Channel island of Jersey, where he was finally apprehended.

I love social history and true crime, so have absolutely no complaints about Michael Alpert's marriage of the two genres. But he runs the risk of disappointing true crime fans who pick up his book expecting to read a concise account of the 'Bermondsey horror'. These people will be better off tracking down a copy of Albert Borowitz's The Woman Who Murdered Black Satin: The Bermondsey Horror.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Free Audiobook MP3s from BN

I've hopped on the audiobook bandwagon a little late in the game. I admit it. As a bibliophile, I've always been resistant to books being produced in any format that didn't involve paper and ink. Although I still prefer my reading matter to be in the traditional format, I warmed to e-books when so many valuable old volumes that I need for research were only available electronically. With that point of resistance pierced, the route to audiobook fan was not a long one. That mission was accomplished this week.

While browsing the Barnes and Noble website for new releases in the true crime genre, I discovered an Audiobook MP3 free download offer. You can choose one or all of the nine stories available. Nothing turns me into a potential customer more than a try-before-you-buy option, so I signed up and selected the titles that interested me. Seconds later an e-mail arrived containing the requisite download links, and I had something to listen to while I cleaned my workspace. I liked some more than others, but nothing was so heinous that I'd never listen to it again.

According to the Barnes and Noble site, the free audiobook offer ends May 16 at 2:59 a.m. EST., so if you're interested, act now.

If your first love of books came from the stories that your parents read to you at bedtime, there's something comforting about letting another person tell you a story. As an author, I also think it's important to embrace new technologies in the area of information dissemination. It's no field for a technophobe.