The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, by Peter Ackroyd

The author likes to blend fiction and history, and he does it in this 1994 novel quite effectively. Such as when Karl Marx and George Gissing sit alongside his fictional characters in the British Museum. But he also blends other factors, such as the sexes, with females playing males, and such as the contrast between the reality of violent death and the illusion of the theatre.

This novel opens with an execution. Of the Elizabeth Cree of the title. For the murder of her husband. We then backtrack to her early life and her trial in the London of 1881. In her struggle to move out of poverty, she initially found bit roles in the theatre. In fact, the artifice of the theatre becomes a major theme of this novel. An artifice that will be exemplified by her dressing up as a man in order to explore the city of London.

Alternating with Elizabeth’s life are excerpts from a diary kept by a serial killer, a kind of Jack the Ripper but apparently based on a real, historic figure. In the novel, this diary writer is John Cree, Elizabeth’s husband. For whose death she is being tried and executed, although we do not know if she truly killed him and what might have brought her to do so. In his diary, however, Cree goes about viciously murdering innocent victims. These murders are described in brutal detail—indeed, too great a detail for me—which is apparently to convey to the reader the true horror of the crimes.

Also alternating with Elizabeth’s life are the lives of historic figures who, like John Cree, gather regularly in the Reading Room of the British Museum. Karl Marx and George Gissing have in common their interest in the poor people of both London and England, and soon become intellectual friends. But even as they become effective characters, and even suspects in the murders, one wonders why they are present in this novel. The eventual answer seems to be the historic verisimilitude that they offer. Although Gissing’s response when suspected by the police is especially moving.

Meanwhile, further chapters introduce John Cree as a reporter with a minor publication, but who has never fulfilled his ambition to write successful plays. He and Elizabeth take to each other, but when they marry, she informs him that because of her violent upbringing she cannot allow him to make love to her. This is not further explored, but the reader does recall her theatrical past when she used to like to dress as a man.

A secondary theme of the novel is the golem. This monster-like creature of Jewish legend that can be created by people under emotional stress is rumored to be the true serial killer. And prompts considerable fear in the populace. While none of the characters in charge take such a monster seriously, the reader definitely knows that the golem is not the perpetrator of these murders—although its imagined presence extends the novel’s theme of the tension between artifice and reality.

For a while, it is unclear what this novel is all about. Is it about the cruel serial murders? Is it about the historic figures, and how they react to a poor and violent society? Is it about illusion, which begins in the theatre? Or is it simply a murder tale in which Elizabeth and John Cree will play major roles? These questions are continually raised in the first half of the novel, as the reader is exposed to various incidents and varying viewpoints.

But as the second half of the novel begins to concentrate on the Crees, it becomes clear that this is their story, including their increasingly contentious marriage. Whereupon, near the end, the author offers a grand surprise. Some critics apparently think that he has earlier provided clues to that surprise. But I cannot find a valid connection between such clues and the author’s final revelation. And so, I do not buy it. It comes across to me as an arbitrary decision by the author. Not as a sudden revelation of character.

And then he compounds this miscalculation on the final pages with a death that is apparently meant to be a cruel irony. But for me, it is simply stale frosting on a half-baked cake.

Despite these qualms, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The blend of history and illusion, of historic figures and fictional figures, of actual events and fictional events, of a series of murders and detective work, and of insights into the minds of different characters, including the killer—all these factors drew me into this volume. Even when I was not sure where the author was headed.

What also drew me into the novel was the enhanced reality of Ackroyd’s London. Valerie Martin describes it in the New York Times: “all its awful, teeming, endless variety, with the dark alleyways peopled by criminals, beggars, and children, its unbreatheable air, its pea-soup fog, its carriages rattling along streets lined with prostitutes…its warm smoked-filled theaters, its cool, airy, quiet museum library, its actors, its murderers, its writers, its intellectuals.”

On the other hand, the author probes too deeply for me into the idea of illusion. I found the least interesting part of the novel to be the moments early on that capture life in the theatre, both on stage and behind the curtain—especially the emphasis on Dan Leno as a great comedian. At the end, I could see the reason for those scenes, but the detail did not work for me. It seemed to be there for its humor in an otherwise serious novel.

Perhaps this is in part due to my lack of knowledge about the historic world of English entertainment. That, for example, Dan Leno was a major figure in that world in 1880—so much so that he figures in the title of the English version of this novel, along with the Golem. (What a juxtaposition!) Whereas, I related to Karl Marx and George Gissing, both because I know of them and because they are treated here more seriously.

By itself, this novel does not turn me onto other novels by Ackroyd. But if I found an intriguing premise in a novel of his, a unique blend of known fact and unknown fiction, I would be tempted to explore it. For I do like to read the flights of an author’s imagination. Of which the best example for me is Stephen King’s 11/22/63, about an attempt to block the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. (July, 2018)

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