The Washington Post
Crippen: A Novel of Murderby John Boyne
July 1910: A gruesome discovery has been made at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Camden.
Chief Inspector Walter Dew of Scotland Yard did not expect the house to be empty. Nor did he expect to find a body in the cellar. Buried under the flagstones are the remains of Cora Crippen, former music-hall singer and wife of Dr. Hawley Crippen. No one would have thought the
July 1910: A gruesome discovery has been made at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Camden.
Chief Inspector Walter Dew of Scotland Yard did not expect the house to be empty. Nor did he expect to find a body in the cellar. Buried under the flagstones are the remains of Cora Crippen, former music-hall singer and wife of Dr. Hawley Crippen. No one would have thought the quiet, unassuming Dr. Crippen capable of murder, yet the doctor and his mistress have disappeared from London, and now a full-scale hunt for them has begun.
Across the Channel in Antwerp, the S.S. Montrose has just set off on its two-week voyage to North America. Slipping in among the first-class passengers is a Mr. John Robinson, accompanied by his teenage son, Edmund. The pair may be hoping for a quiet, private voyage, but in the close confines of a luxury ocean liner, anonymity is rare. And with others aboard looking for romance, or violence, or escape from their past in Europe, it will take more than just luck for the Robinsons to survive the voyage unnoticed.
An accomplished, intricately plotted novel, Crippen brilliantly reimagines the amazing escape attempt of one of history's most notorious killers and marks the outstanding American debut of one of Ireland's best young novelists.
The Washington Post
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A Novel of Murder
By John Boyne
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 John Boyne
All rights reserved.
Antwerp: Wednesday, 20 July 1910
She was over 575 feet in length, with a beam almost an eighth of that size. She weighed approximately 16,500 tons and had a capacity of over eighteen hundred passengers, although today she was only three-quarters full. Stately and impressive, her hull and paintwork gleaming in the July sun, she seemed almost impatient to depart, her chimneys piping steam cautiously as the Scheldt river crashed noisily against her side. She was the SS Montrose, part of the Canadian Pacific fleet of passenger ships, and she was preparing to set sail from the port of Antwerp in Belgium for the city of Quebec in Canada, some three thousand miles away.
For over two weeks, the Montrose had been settled in the Berendrecht lock as her crew of sailors and engineers prepared her for her next voyage, and the Sinjoreens of the small Belgian city took pride in the fact that a fatal voyage had never set forth from their shores. There were almost two hundred employees of the Canadian Pacific Company who would sail with the ship when she left the harbour, from the navigator at the helm, through the coal-skinned, muscle-ripened recluses who stoked the engines, to the younger, orphan boys who swept out the main dining hall after the evening's entertainments had come to an end. Few of them, however, had spent much time at the harbour since they had docked there in early July, preferring to enjoy their vacation and shore leave in the busy town of Antwerp, where there was enough food, drink and whores to satisfy all.
A taxi pulled in near a series of large steel containers, and Mrs Antoinette Drake opened the door and placed a felt slipper gingerly on the sea-slimed pavement outside, curling her lip in distaste at the filth which clung to the cobblestones. The slipper was of a dark purple hue, the same colour as her hat and extravagant travelling gown which covered her enormous body like a sheet of tarpaulin covers a lifeboat. 'Driver,' she said impatiently, reaching forward and tapping him on the shoulder with a gloved finger; she rolled the 'r' in 'driver' regally. 'Driver, surely you can park a little closer to the ship? I can't be expected to walk through this. I'll ruin my shoes. They're new, don't you know. They won't take to all this water.'
'No further,' he replied, making no effort to turn around. His English was poor; rather than trying to improve it, he had discovered over the years that he needed to employ only a few stock phrases with foreigners, and so he stuck rigidly to them. That had been one of them. And here was another: 'Three schillings, please.'
'No further? What nonsense! What's he talking about, Victoria?' Mrs Drake asked, turning to look at her daughter, who was rooting through her purse for the fare. 'The man's a fool. Why can't he drive us any closer? The ship is all the way over there. Is he simple-minded, do you think? Does he not understand me?'
'This is as far as he's allowed to drive, Mother,' said Victoria, fishing out the money and handing it to the driver before opening her own door and stepping outside. 'Wait there,' she added. 'I'll help you out. It's perfectly safe.'
'Oh really, this is too much,' Mrs Drake muttered irritably as she waited for the seventeen-year-old to come around to her side of the taxi. Victoria had chosen a far more suitable travelling costume and didn't seem concerned about the dangers of footwear on the damp stones. 'I say it's really not good enough,' she added in a louder voice. 'Do you hear me, driver? It's not good enough, all this taking money for a job half done. It's a disgrace, if you want to know the truth. If this was England, you'd be taken out and flogged for such a thing. Leaving a lady of my years and station stranded like this.'
'Out please,' the driver replied in a pleasant, sing-song voice, another of his handful of useful phrases.
'Out please,' he repeated. He drove tourists to the harbour every day and had little time for their complaints, especially the English ones, especially the upper-class English ones who seemed to believe that they should not only be driven to the ship but should be carried aboard on a sedan chair.
'Well I never did!' said Mrs Drake, astonished at the man's impertinence. 'Now look here, you —' She intended to drag her body weight forward and remonstrate further, perhaps employ a little light violence if necessary, but by now Victoria had opened the side door fully and was reaching inside, gripping her mother's arm, placing a foot against the wheel to act as a makeshift fulcrum and wrenching the older woman out. The vast bulk of the elder Drake found itself pouring on to the stones of the Antwerp harbour before any more complaints could issue from her mouth; a sound like a vacuum filling was heard distinctly from inside the car. 'Victoria, I —' she gasped, head held low, bosom crashing forward, the words seized from her mouth and mercifully whisked away, unspoken, into the heavens. 'Victoria, take a care! Can't you just —'
'Thank you, driver,' said Victoria when her mother was safely out of the car and attempting to recover her dignity by flattening the creases in her dress with a suede glove.
'Look at me,' she muttered. 'What a condition to be seen in.'
'You look perfectly fine,' her daughter said in a distracted voice as she looked around at the other passengers making their way to the ship. She quickly closed the door, and the driver immediately sped away.
'Victoria, I wish you wouldn't treat these people with such deference,' Mrs Drake remonstrated as she shook her head in frustration. 'Thanking him, after the way he spoke to me. You must understand that so many of these foreigners will take advantage of people like you and I if we show them any sign of weakness. Don't spare the rod, that's my adage, my dear, and it has served me well.'
'Don't I know it,' she replied.
'Their class don't understand any better. In truth, many of them will respect you for it.'
'We are the foreigners here, Mother,' Victoria pointed out, looking around to inspect her surroundings. 'Not them. This is Belgium, remember? The man didn't mean to be rude. It's not worth our concerning ourselves with such trivial matters.'
'Not worth it? That's three shillings we've spent on a taxi ride to the ship, and look at us! Another mile to walk on wet cobblestones, and who's to clean the hem of my dress when we're on board? I fancied I would wear this on a dinner evening after we had set sail. That's out of the question now. And my legs are not what they were when I was a girl. You know I hate walking.'
Victoria smiled and linked her mother's arm with her own, leading her in the direction of the ship. 'It's hardly a mile away,' she said patiently. 'Two hundred yards, no more.' She considered pointing out that it had actually been four schillings she had spent and not three, for she had given the man a tip, but she decided against it. 'Once we're on board you won't have to walk again for eleven days if you don't feel like it. And I'm sure there will be a maid to help with the clothing. All our luggage should have already been unpacked in our cabin, you know. Who do you think did that? Mice?'
Mrs Drake sniffed but refused to concede the point. She remained silent, however, as they approached the gangway. 'Don't be insolent,' she said finally. 'I only mean that there is a correct way and an incorrect way to conduct one's business, and if one is dealing with an underling one should bear that in mind at all times.'
'Yes, Mother,' said Victoria in a sad voice, employing the tone of one who has grown accustomed to dealing with the complaints of a small child. 'But we're here now anyway, so let's not worry about it.'
'And you have to remember that we are Englishwomen. And Englishwomen of a particular class at that. We cannot let ourselves be bullied or taken advantage of by some ... European.' She spat out the word as if it was a fly she had inhaled. 'We must remember ourselves at all times when we're sailing. Now, here's a boy to take our tickets. Oh, take a look at his face. He looks as though he hasn't washed in a week. Filthy child.' She lifted her cane and waved it in his direction, as if she was flagging down a passing motorist. 'Have them ready for him there, Victoria. Let's not waste time on ceremony. And for heaven's sake don't get too close to him. He may be diseased. Oh, what's that noise? For heaven's sake, get me out of this place!'
'That noise' was the sound of Bernard Leejik, the Drakes' recent cab driver, pressing firmly on the horn of his car as he narrowly avoided mowing down several other innocent travellers making their way towards the Montrose. Mr John Robinson had to jump back when the vehicle sped past him, his legs moving a lot more nimbly than those of the average forty-seven-year-old gentleman. A man of quiet sensibilities who disliked any sort of commotion or trouble, he stared around at the disappearing vehicle with distaste. 'These new motor cars will be the death of everyone,' he said, recovering his balance and directing his attention towards his youthful companion. 'I think someone should do something about them before we all get knocked over and killed. Don't you agree?'
'I've never driven in one ... Father,' came the boy's cautious reply, as if he was trying out the word for the first time.
Mr Robinson both smiled and felt awkward at the same time. 'That's it,' he said quietly, resting a hand on the lad's shoulder for a moment as they walked along. 'Well done. You have the tickets, haven't you?' he added, his hand drawn to his face as he felt the bare space above his upper lip which was now devoid of the moustache he had worn for almost thirty years. In its place, he had started to grow a beard along his cheeks and chin, and after four days it was coming along quite nicely. Still, this face, this new sensation along his cheeks and lips was unfamiliar to him and he could not stop himself from constantly touching it. 'Edmund,' he said, with as much strange formality as the boy had uttered 'father' a few moments before.
'They're in my pocket,' he answered.
'Excellent. Well, as soon as we're on board, I think we should go straight to our cabin. Settle in and take a little rest. Not create any sort of fuss. When the ship is safely at sea we can take the air perhaps.'
'Oh no,' said Edmund, frustrated. 'Can't we stand by the railings and wave at the people as we set sail? When we left England you wouldn't allow me to do it. Can't we do it now? Please?'
Mr Robinson frowned. In recent days he had grown almost pathologically careful about drawing any unnecessary attention to himself or to Edmund. 'They're only people,' he pointed out, hoping to dampen the boy's enthusiasm. 'Growing smaller in the distance. It's nothing to get excited about.'
'Well, if you'd prefer we didn't ...' Edmund muttered, looking down at the ground disconsolately as they approached the ship. 'But it would mean a lot to me. I promise I won't speak to anyone. I just want to feel some of the excitement, that's all.'
'Very well,' Mr Robinson conceded with a sigh. 'If it means that much to you, I don't see how I can possibly refuse.'
Edmund smiled at his father and hugged his arm tightly. 'Thank you,' he said. 'Look,' he added, pointing ahead to where two women were remonstrating at the platform with a uniformed member of staff. 'Some sort of commotion already.'
'Just ignore them,' said Mr Robinson. 'We'll show our tickets and climb aboard. No need to get involved with any little local difficulties.'
'There's a second queue,' said Edmund, reaching into his pocket and displaying the tickets to another member of the crew, who examined them carefully before staring into the faces of the father and son and ticking their names off on a master sheet.
'Your cabin is number A four on the first-class deck,' he said in an affected voice, one which had studied the vowel sounds of the upper classes and was mimicking them unsuccessfully. Mr Robinson could tell that he was probably originally an East End Londoner who had worked his way up through the ranks of the Canadian Pacific Company to the position he now held and wanted to pretend that he was of more impressive stock than was actually the case. This is what came of mingling with the rich for a career, he knew: one wanted to feel part of their society. 'Nice set of rooms, sir,' the man added with a friendly smile. 'Think you'll be very comfortable there. Plenty of stewards around if there's any problems.'
'Thank you,' said Mr Robinson, ushering Edmund along, a hand on his back, not wishing to become engaged in too long a conversation.
'Like one of the lads to show you the way, sir?' the attendant asked, but Mr Robinson shook his head without turning around.
'We'll be fine,' he called out. 'I'm sure we can find it.'
'I specifically ordered a room on the starboard side,' said Mrs Drake, her arms flapping like a seagull in flight as she craned her neck to look at the sheets which the first crew member was holding before him on a clipboard. She turned around irritably as Mr Robinson and Edmund brushed past her, as if she couldn't understand why others were being allowed to board while she was stuck here making conversation with an impoverished person. 'I find this simply too outrageous. Victoria, tell the boy that we ordered a starboard room.'
'Madam, the cabin which was booked was a first-class cabin. We don't specifically note which side of the ship it's on. That's not a service we offer.'
'It's fine, really,' said Victoria, reaching out for the key which the crew member was holding.
'It's far from fine,' said Mrs Drake firmly. 'Where's the captain? Surely there must be some adult in charge of this boy? They can hardly allow him to take charge of things on his own with a filthy face like that. Living on the sea, too. Haven't you ever heard of water?'
'The captain is busy right now,' he replied between gritted teeth, ignoring her comments. The truth was that he had been working since early morning and the Drakes were among the last passengers to board. Standing on the dock of the Antwerp harbour over the course of several hours involved a lot of dust in the air travelling one's way, and he was damned if he was going to apologize for not carrying a cloth in his pocket to wipe his face clean before every single passenger climbed on board. 'Believe me, Mrs Drake, when we're at sea, there's no real difference in the view, whether you're port or starboard. It's water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink,' he added in a false tone of jollity, as if this would end the situation and make these people board sooner. He wasn't travelling with the ship himself and the sooner she sailed, the sooner his working day would end and he could return home. A queue of about a half-dozen people was lining up behind them now and Mrs Drake was growing more aware of their presence, although embarrassment was a sensation unfamiliar to her. She turned to look at the first couple, a well-dressed husband and wife in their sixties who were staring directly ahead, silently pretending that this contretemps was not taking place at all, and she frowned. Pursing her lips, she gave them a discreet nod, as if they, her social equals, could understand the frustration of having to converse with the little people.
'So sorry to detain you,' she said obsequiously, beaming from ear to ear. 'Some mix-up over our room. Mrs Antoinette Drake, so pleased to meet you,' she added, enunciating each word perfectly.
Before her new companions could have an opportunity to answer her or add their own names, Victoria had reached across and taken the key quickly. 'A seven,' she said, reading the inscription. 'Is it a nice cabin?' she asked, reaching down to lift the hem of her skirt to prevent it dragging behind her as she made her way up the gangway.
'One of the nicest, miss,' came the reply. 'I guarantee you'll find it comfortable and relaxing. All the cabins in A and B section are reserved for our finest gentlemen and ladies.'
'You'll be hearing more of this, I assure you,' said Mrs Drake, giving in now as she prepared to follow her daughter on board. She tapped the young man on the shoulder twice with her cane, sharply, as if about to ennoble him. 'So sorry to detain you,' she repeated to the people behind her, shifting tone once again in an attempt to create a solidarity with them. 'I dare say we shall meet again on board ship.'
'Charmed,' said the old man in a dry voice which suggested he wanted her to get out of his way ... and quickly.
'Really, Mother,' said Victoria.
'Really, Victoria,' said Mrs Drake at the same moment. 'I just believe a person should receive what a person pays for. Nothing more and nothing less. Is that so wrong? If a person pays for a starboard cabin, then a person should be given a starboard cabin. And there's an end to it.' They climbed aboard and saw a sign pointing towards a staircase bearing the legend First Class Cabins: A1–A8.
Excerpted from Crippen by John Boyne. Copyright © 2004 John Boyne. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
John Boyne was born in Dublin, Ireland. He studied English literature at Trinity College, Dublin, and was a student in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, where he was awarded the Curtis Brown Prize. He began publishing short stories in his early twenties and was shortlisted for a Hennessy Literary Award. He is also the author of the children's novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which has been shortlisted for the Ottakar's Children's Book Prize. He has taught creative writing at the Irish Writer's Centre and at the University of East Anglia, where he was awarded the Writing Fellowship for 2005; in the same year, Ireland's Sunday Business Post named him one of the forty people under forty in Ireland "likely to be the movers and shakers who will define the country's culture, politics, style and economics in 2005 and beyond." Crippen was nominated for the Sunday Independent Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year Award. Boyne's work has been translated into fourteen languages. He lives with his partner in Dublin.
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