Saturday, June 20, 2009
Review: Death at the Priory, by James Ruddick
Death at the Priory is the true story of a murder. In 1876, a London lawyer named Charles Bravo was poisoned to death in his suburban home, the Priory. Suspects abounded—the man’s wife, Florence; her ex-lover, Dr. James Gully; the housekeeper, Mrs. Cox; and the groom. But the case was never fully solved. In this book, James Ruddick offers a convincing solution to the mystery. The book is divided into two parts; the first covers the events of the murder and inquest, while in the second the author outlines his theory, narrowing the suspects down one by one.
This fewer-than-200-page book began in the late 1990s as a series of research papers, by an investigative journalist. As a result, the book is highly readable, with short, snappy chapters. But because the book is so brief, it really fails to even scratch the surface of what Victorian domestic life was really like. And the author makes a lot of generalizations about the Victorians (“theirs was a heavy drinking age”), without backing it up. In addition, he tries to force modern ideas upon Florence. The author assembled parts of the story through talking to descendants of the people that were involved; Ruddick actually seems offended by the fact that Gully’s descendant (an MP, by the way) wouldn’t talk to him. Lots of people are forthcoming with their family’s history, but a lot of people, especially those in the public eye, would rather leave the past in the past.
But this is not by any stretch of the imagination a scholarly work, and the author does an admirable job of telling the Bravo story. I do think he backed up his theory remarkably well—and I have to say that after reading this book, I’m convinced by it. It’s amazing that nobody in 1876, given the paucity of suspects, actually figured out what happened.