Doctor who? Crippen, John Boyne (2004)

This book was recommended by a friend, and as I hadn’t come across Boyne before I was interested to see how he handled his subject. It’s a difficult one – we all know (at least vaguely) what happened in the end because for some reason, almost a hundred years after the events, the name of Dr Crippen has survived in popular memory. Wikipedia entry for those who have no idea who he was.

Boyne solves the problem of writing a story that most readers will know the end of, by creating a sympathetic character in Crippen, and by structuring the novel in such a way that his inevitable capture is left until the end. He also manages to deliver a surprising twist, so that what we end up with is a well-written tragedy.

I found I was reading this more as a writer than a reader however, and as I read, was aware of the various structures within the novel; I’m not sure why. It is written with an omniscient point of view, constantly jumping between the heads of the various characters in a manner that I personally don’t much like, and which has become quite unusual these days. On top of this, the narrative is not written in a straight linear fashion, but follows several different time frames. The first starts with the sailing of the Montrose, and deals with the lives of the various passengers in the crossing of the Atlantic. There are some marvellous characters sketches, from the captain of the ship to the overbearing society lady, Mrs Drake.

The second time frame follows the life of Hawley Harvey Crippen, following him through from his early childhood in Michigan to London in January 1910. This allows us to develop our sympathies for the doctor and an utter abhorrence for his wife, who is written as a most unpleasant person.

The third time frame follows Cora Crippen’s obnoxious friends as they try and interest the police in investigating her disappearance from March to June 1910. They are written as unpleasant, small-minded and hypocritical people, bastions of middle class society, in other words.

As a writer I appreciate this technique, as all of these narratives eventually converge on the point where Crippen is arrested. Boyne could just have easily written a straight linear narrative, but that would not have allowed him to unveil his twist at the climax of the novel.

I suppose the only major issue I had with this novel is the dearth of sympathetic characters. It’s a little disturbing to realise that in the course of it there are only two women who are in the least sympathetic out of all those we are introduced to – Crippen’s lover Ethel LeNeuve, and the Montrose passenger, Martha Hayes. The rest are either small-minded social climbers, or overbearing snobs. Most of the men aren’t much better, although there are rather more sympathetic characters among them.

As in all tragedy, Crippen is brought down by his fatal character flaw. Usually this is something like ambition or pride. In Crippen’s case it is through being too nice and honourable, and too weak. Interesting.

In an interview, Boyne had some interesting things to say about the problems of writing fiction about real people, but as I have some thoughts on that subject myself, I’ll leave them to another post.

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