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The Trial of Elizabeth Cree by Peter Ackroyd
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's review
Aug 12, 2010

it was amazing
Read in October, 2010

Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem is quite simply a masterpiece. Every aspect of the novel is remarkable. It’s a whodunit, though it suggests a couple of credible suspects right at the start. It even convicts its central character to death by hanging before we have even got to know her. Clearly things are not going to be obvious. The novel is also a study in character, especially that of its central actor, Lambeth Marsh Lizzie, later Mrs Elizabeth Cree. It’s also an evocation of London in the late nineteenth century, complete with colours, smells, vistas and perspectives. It’s a highly literary work, ever conscious of its place beside the genres it skirts. Overall, it’s a wonderful example of how form can be used as inventively as plot to create a story.

The novel has a series of interlocking stands. In one our anti-heroine, Lizzie, is accused of the murder of John Cree, her husband. In another, John Cree’s diary reveals certain secrets that not only he would have wanted to hide. In a third strand, we learn of Lambeth Marsh Lizzie’s past, how she came to a life in the theatre and how she met her husband. A fourth strand follows the career of Dan Leno, a music hall player, worshipper of the silent clown Grimaldi and mentor of Lizzie’s stage life. And in a fifth strand we see how, in a great city like London, our paths inevitably cross those of great thinkers, writers, artists and, of course, history itself. Peter Ackroyd thus has his characters cross the paths of a writer, George Gissing, and a thinker of note, one Karl Marx, as they tramp the streets of Limehouse after a day at the library.

As usual, sex has a lot to do with the relationships in the book. It is usually on top, but here it also comes underneath and sometimes on the side of events. Mrs Cree is accused of poisoning her husband. Their married life has been far from conventional, but are its inadequacies the motive for a series of brutal killings of prostitutes and others in the Limehouse area? As a result of the curious placement of certain trophies, the killings are attributed in the popular mind to a golem, a mythical creature made of clay that can change it shape at will. Karl Marx examines the Jewish myths surrounding the subject. Others steer clear of the subject.

Lizzie continues on the stage until she meets her husband. She learns much stagecraft from Dan Leno and eventually resolves to help her husband to complete the play over which he has unsuccessfully laboured. When the book’s plot resolves, we are surprised, but then everything makes such perfect sense. And in a real piece of insight, Peter Ackroyd likens the mass murderer to Romaticism perfected, the ultimate triumph of individualism. There is much to stimulate the mind in this thriller.

A reader of this review might suspect that Dan leno And The Limehouse Golem is a difficult read, a book whose diverse strands never converge. But quite the contrary is true: it comes together in a wonderful, fast-flowing manner to a resolution that is both highly theatrical yet thoroughly credible. Read it many times.
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