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The Maul and the Pear Tree

3.58  ·  Rating details ·  772 ratings  ·  89 reviews
During a dark night in December 1811, in London's East End, a tradesman, his young wife, sleeping baby, and a shop boy were battered to death in their home. Days later, a pub owner, his wife, and a servant were similarly killed. No motive was found.

P.D. James, collaborating with a former colleageue, police historian T.A Critchely, re-creates this infamous crime. Containing

Paperback, 256 pages
Published December 6th 1990 by Penguin Books Ltd (first published 1971)
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Nancy Oakes
The Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811 are beyond famous -- not just for the murders themselves, but for the ensuing panic that spread throughout much of London at the time which was written about by Thomas de Quincey in his On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts. It was also this case that spurred the reading of crime in the newspapers as sensation among the general public . This book uses primary documents (some of which are printed in full) and other materials to not only recount these ...more
May 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This was a true crime from the year 1811. Way before the Peelers and Bobbies. But there were the Bow Street Runners. In this one an see the way how the citizens of London weren't too keen on a police force, even though a series of grizzly murders had just happened.

For me, the story of the murder was secondary. I was more fascinated with the distrust of the police force and how people would tramp all over crime scenes wrecking any form of evidence.

If one enjoys the history of crime detection, I
Mar 30, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
it's about the ratcliffe highway murders of 1811, which form part of the moore/sinclair/ackroyd london mythos and which i knew very little about. it's pretty much a model for this sort of thing - a narrative of events combined with a precise evocation of the social and physical context (there's a lot of lovely description of the wapping docks area in a bleak december at the beginning of the 19th century, presumably contributed by James) with some modern commentary about the evidence and the ...more
Lee Battersby
Feb 03, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Absolutely stunning treatise on a pair of murders that are at the heart of the creation of the British policing system as it is today, and which remain an historical mystery of the highest water. Co-authors James and Critchley draw on a multitude of contemporary sources to follow both the social and policing trails through Wapping and surrounding areas, and the picture painted in vibrant, well-rounded and utterly believable. gaps in the historical record are clearly identified, judgements drawn ...more
Nov 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I found this a surprising little book. First of all, a disclaimer. I do not like P.D. James's crime novels. Imagine my surprise when I found her name amongst factual books on London. This was the main reason I picked this book up - after all, the title conveyed nothing to me (other than the thought the book had been miscatalogued). Then the subtitle caught my eye - Ratcliffe Highway Murders. I have been fascinated by these murders since the first time I read about them. So I bought the book - ...more
Mar 15, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: James fans
It took three tries over five years to actually finish this book. And I like P.D. James. It is interesting, a bit, eventually, but the tone is rather dull. What is mostly intersting is the look at English Anti-Irish feeling at the time.
Katherine Addison
The Maul and the Pear Tree is about two horrific crimes in 1811: two houses invaded, the inhabitants beaten to death with a maul or a ripping chisel, and then their throats cut, and all for no apparent reason (one of the victims was a three-month-old baby, so it's hard to imagine a pressing motive). James and Critchley (on the book's original publication in 1971, it was Critchley and James, but that was another country, and besides the wench is dead) doubt the guilt of the man arrested for the ...more
Dec 14, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In 1811 two episodes of multiple murder took place in London within a short space of time. At that instant there was no organised police force, and what there was in the way of night watchmen were fairly ineffectual. However people were rounded up and questioned, though usually held on flimsy evidence.
James gives a balanced look at the story, including questioning the ultimate result of the hunt for the killer/s.
Aug 31, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting reconstruction of a crime investigation from 1811 which demonstrates how difficult such investigations were without a police force and how much depended on people's opinions and heresay
Cleopatra  Pullen
Why are murders committed in the East End of London in 1811 still of interest over 200 years later? Well the brutal murders of two entire households are in part, at least, responsible for the birth of the Police Service that we have today.

One December night in 1811 an intruder entered the Marrs Draper store and murdered all the occupants including Timothy Marr the owner’s baby son. The only member of the household to survive was the servant Margaret Jewell who had been running an errand for
(Contains spoilers, but no more than appear on the book flap.)

Mystery writer P.D. James and police historian and Home Office member T.A. Critchley co-wrote this true-crime account of London's Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811, in which seven people, including an infant, were brutally bludgeoned in two separate events over a two-week period. Crime-fighting was organized by parish, and constables were volunteer. They were supplemented by watchmen and beadles who were susceptible to bribes. It
Nov 29, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Excellent and intensively-researched casefile on a case handled only rarely by modern writers. The historical sources available with respect to these crimes are minimal, but the authors have here drawn on as many as are known to exist to create a very thoughtful analysis of the case, with the context of its time and its subsequent influence on the English judicial system, and a fascinating and involving book withal.
Linda Hardy
Jun 07, 2016 rated it liked it
In 1811 two families were murdered along the Ratcliffe Highway in east London, who was the murderer? Police and local Watchmen had their suspicions but before a man could be charged with the murders he committed suicide, but was he really the killer? Interesting story about a time in London's history I knew little of, but found the story a bit longwinded, could of been condensed a bit.
Sep 12, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: crime and mystery buffs!
Shelves: mysteries
This is the second time I have read a crime writer's account of an unsolved historical crime. It is wonderful to see that life is stranger than fiction and no less interesting. James does a fabulous job weaving the factual historical account into a captivating story! BRAVO!
Aug 03, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: crime-nonfiction
This could perhaps be called an historical mystery. Reading it reminded me of one of the last episodes in the Morse series on PBS. It is a reworking of the evidence in an actual 19th century British murder case.
Crime novelist writes history book about 200 year old murders. Very interesting to follow the crimes and subsequent investigation and now I want to seek out the author's other work.
Jan 05, 2017 rated it liked it
An interesting book mostly, though it didn't keep my interest the whole way through.
Luciana Nery
May 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Absolutely brilliant! At first, I wouldn't have believed so. I love true crime stories, but I thought it was a little bit presumptuous to try to solve a series of crime committed in the 1810's. But I read anyway, and it was a wonderful surprise.
First, the local color. The authors portray beautifully (and gloomily...) the city of London and the life of its inhabitants. It's also very informative - one comes to know how the English police force was first arranged, and what existed prior to that.

A wonderful journey through some of London’s social history with the still-unsolved case of the Ratcliff Highway murders, and one of the first books of true crime that I am reading. Very well written in the sense that the authors portrayed well how the attitudes of magistrates were back then, and how witness statements could be taken as the word of law which is very different to what would have happened today. There were also issues raised about the lack of an organised investigation (even the ...more
Susan Jo Grassi
Sep 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
After recently reading David Morrell's "Murder As A Fine Art" I became curious about the Ratcliffe Highway Murders in December 1811 in the East End of London. P. D. James, a well known British mystery writer, and T. A. Critchley, a British police historian, put together a very well researched account in 1971, using contemporary newspaper articles and other documents, to tell the story of the horrifically brutal murders of seven people, including that of an infant, and the speedy, inept ...more
An interesting account about a series of killings that shocked and terrified early 19th Century London. Despite the fact that these brutal murders were pretty much considered the most terrible crimes in Great Britain until being displaced by the Whitechapel Killings, I had never heard of them before seeing this book. The initial description reminded me of the Axeman Murders in New Orleans (less so upon getting more details, but there are similarities). This book is about 50% about the crimes and ...more
Simon Pressinger
This was a quick and compelling read, excellently written (it's P.D. James, so you'd expect nothing less!). I did get a feeling, as I worked into the last third of the book, that the murders may well have been the work of an 'aggressive psychopath', the worst kind. But there's so much evidence that leaves us at a cross roads. Thomas De Quincey, as it turns out, really didn't help in getting the facts of the case straight, opting instead to immortalise the main suspect (John Williams) in a shroud ...more
Co-written with T A Critchley.
Giving an insight into the development of a police force in London, this volume is humorous as well as informative. A number of surprising details for those of us who have come to expect certain standards from law enforcement officers (indeed military history is somewhat similar), in particular with regard setting an adequate remuneration for honesty. Ultimately we have to realise as a society that the standards chosen and how they are enforced are entwined with the
Laurence Giliotti
Mar 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
The Maul and the Pear Tree by P.D. James P.D. James In this document P.D. James and T.A. Critchley put muscle and flesh on the skeleton of dates and names that often suffice for historical knowledge of policing. I am no stranger to the subject, yet after reading this book I have greater understanding of the disjointed, inadequate and incompetent operation of the British police/judicial system of 1811. It has also increased my appreciation for those who, over the last 200 years, have put forward advancements in police science and law ...more
Oct 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the most fascinating historical fiction books I have read. The Victorian setting is so believable, I felt I had been there. The detail and precision of her craft is uncanny. I have always enjoyed the work of P.D. James, and this book always stands out as a favorite in my mind. This book effected me more than most. There is not a moment of distance, comfort, or removal from the subject. There is no escaping this work. Not just entertainment, a museum for the mind.
Jun 04, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition

I'd been looking forward to this one, hoping it would be a good mix of historical crime, social history and P D James' writing. But it just didn't gel. It was long-winded, taking 350+ pages to say what could have been said in a tenth of that.

Only the 4 or 5 pages of the epilogue were worthy of James at her best.

Carolyn Rose
Sep 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
Yes, at times this seemed tedious and yes, there were no firm answers or solutions to the crimes, but it was an interesting look at the time and place and the way the wheels of justice moved 200 years ago.
Jane Glen
Sep 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
P.D. James's only non-fiction book. Based on seemingly random murders committed in early London, when policing was a bit of a joke, and circumstantial evidence was elevated to truth in order to gain a conviction and put the fears of Londoners to rest. Very well-done.
Martha Flanagan
Jun 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
fascinating and detailed book about the famous Ratcliffe Highway murders. No wild speculation and a lot of very interesting social history. The only book that PD James had a hand in writing that Iain
Sinclair actually likes.
Mandy Setterfield
Bit disappointed with this one. Those who know me know how much I love a real-life murder story (Wicked Boy, Mr Whicher, Brides in the Bath and so on!) but this one just didn’t have the same spark.
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P. D. James, byname of Phyllis Dorothy James White, Baroness James of Holland Park, (born August 3, 1920, Oxford, Oxfordshire, England—died November 27, 2014, Oxford), British mystery novelist best known for her fictional detective Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard.

The daughter of a middle-grade civil servant, James grew up in the university town of Cambridge. Her formal education, however, ended at