Rough Justice

Hands up all those who enjoyed The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. Well, you’re in for a treat with The Damnation of John Donellan, another cold case/true crime extravaganza, this time set in Georgian England. It’s August 1870 and the young heir to the estate of Lawford Hall in Warwickshire, Sir Theodosius Boughton, was soon to come of age and take up his rightful inheritance. Only he was a dissolute young man, riddled with syphilis, fond of starting brawls in pubs and too lazy even to catch fish properly (he would throw arsenic into the river to poison them). Knowing her son’s reluctance to take his medicine, his mother, Anna Maria, stood over him whilst he swallowed his latest, unpleasant-tasting physic; within the hour he was dead of painful convulsions. For several days there seemed to be no notable reaction from the family, but as rumours spread around the county that he had been poisoned, the household began to take sides.

Theodosius had a sister, Theodosia, who was second in line for the family fortune. She had made a hasty and, in the view of many, regrettable marriage to a ex-army man, Captain John ‘Diamond’ Donellan. Donellan had been thrown out of the army for profiteering in India, but had managed to reach a position of social influence by buying into a new venture in London. The Pantheon was an entertainment palace for the upper classes providing music concerts, balls and card-playing and Donellan was a sort of meet-and-greet host, a refined version of a club bouncer. He was known to be good-looking and charming, and constantly on the make. To really gain a place in society, he needed to make a good marriage, but this was bound to be problematic when he had little to offer a wife.

He met Theodosia when they coincided at an overcrowded travelling inn en route to Bath. He gallantly offered mother and daughter his rooms, and struck up an acquaintance. In a very short time, he and Theodosia eloped and were secretly married. By the time of Theodosius’s suspicious death, the couple had been living reconciled with Anna Maria at Lawford Hall for several years, and he had been helpful in extricating Thodosius from embarrassing brawls. But now, Anna Maria turned against her son-in-law, and provided an account of the morning’s events that would eventually condemn Donellan to the gallows.

It’s really the historical situation that makes this book such a good read. Georgian England was an extraordinary time to live: the practice of medicine was not yet regulated and many doctors and physicians were charlatans, their quack remedies more likely to kill you than the illness. Theodosius had been dosing himself liberally with various mercury-based preparations that had undoubtedly undermined his health. Then the law was a mess. Donellan’s trial was a shambles, the blatant contradictions between accounts ignored, the witnesses intimidated by the prosecution, and the judge ‘considered arrogant, hasty in his decisions; prejudiced, severe and even cruel in criminal trials.’ The media hasn’t changed all that much; it spread abroad unfounded accusations and gossip, relished the prospect of Donellan’s guilt in advance of the trial and then howled injustice once he had been hanged. And the society of the day was rife with tensions. The landed classes had numerous advantages, which they exercised freely, and money was as ever a point of contention. The line of the Boughton family was fraught with disagreement and dislike, one branch of the family greeting word of Theodosius’s death as ‘wonderful news’.

Elizabeth Cooke does a very good job of setting the scene for the suspicious death and teasing out the alternative scenarios. Was Theodosius actually poisoned? How likely was it that John Donellan was the guilty party? How to account for Anna Maria’s sudden change in testimony that succeeded in condemning Donellan, or for her apparent lack of emotion over her son’s death? Who else stood to gain? Alas, there can be no recompense now for the luckless Donellan, and any alternative solutions can only be speculation. But it’s an engaging read that makes you extremely grateful for forensic science and ethical legal practice.


ETA  – I keep forgetting to say! Very many thanks indeed to whoever nominated me for a BBAW award. It came as a complete surprise and is a genuine honor. The very best of luck to everyone who is up for an award this year.


22 thoughts on “Rough Justice

  1. Hand firmly up! Straight to the wishlist this goes. This is indeed a fascinating time period, and I look forward to “seeing” its justice system at work.

  2. I do not like historical crime fiction all that much but it does sound like a very good one of its kind and should I ever feel tempted, I’m glad to know there are some great books out there. It’s interesting to read how the legal system has changed.
    I’m also quite fascinated by poison. No idea why.

  3. This sounds like a great read. whenever I read books like this that have medicine when nobody knew anything, I always makes me grateful for living when I do. Onto the list it goes!

  4. Have you read Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook? I bet you’d enjoy it! 🙂

    I actually wasn’t a huge fan of Mr. Whicher (I know, right? such a blogging black sheep), but I loved the Blum so I’ll pop this one on my tbr list!

  5. Well, it’s always a surprise and a treat when the author of a book finds your review, isn’t it? Thank you for dropping by, Elizabeth, and I hope the book does very well for you indeed!

    Nymeth – If you liked Mr. Whicher, I feel quite sure you will like this one. I knew nothing about the Georgian period, but became quite fascinated by it and ended up investing in a history book!

    Caroline – I should just make it clearer than it is in the post – this is non-fiction, rather than fiction. I don’t know how that affects your feeling about historical crime! I quite understand that not every genre appeals, after all. I’ve never thought about poison much in and of itself – Eva mentions a book that might be up your street – The Poisoner’s Handbook. I don’t know it, but I will be looking it up.

    David – your razor sharp mind will enjoy all the ins and outs of the legal trial, I feel sure! 🙂

    Jackie – I’d love to know what you think of it if you do get hold of it. I really enjoyed Mr Whicher, and in this one, the study of medicine is fascinating. It made me very, very glad to be living in the modern age…. 🙂

    Stefanie – yes, I think there’s a good chance you’d like this, and your law students would probably get a kick out of it, too! I know exactly what you mean about being relieved we are alive in the twenty-first century. I’ve never been so glad!

    Eva – I love the way you will always stand up for your own feelings about a book no matter what – that’s integrity! I haven’t heard of the Deborah Blum, but will definitely go and look it up now. Thank you! 🙂

  6. Theodosius had a sister, Theodosia

    Because who among us could get enough of that name, really? What family wouldn’t want children with both the male and female versions of it? Yikes.

    This sounds like a great read, and fascinating for the insights into the society at the time. Old-school treatments for syphilis give me the collywobbles.

  7. As much as I hate going to the doctor, I bet this makes you happy too for modern medicine. I loved Mr Whicher (hand held up) and this sounds equally as good. I had not heard of it until you mentioned it and now I have to have it, of course. I love books like this as much for the period details I am sure she must write about as for the crime she tries to solve.

  8. I did like The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, but didn’t love it. This sounds good! However, really? They named their kids Theodosius and Theodosia? Were the parents really into the Byzantines?

  9. Lilian – it’s that good old adage about truth being stranger than fiction! And thank you for the kind words, so nice of you.

    Celawerd – it was a fun read. I’d love to know what you make of it!

    Lola – I would love to know what you think of it! I reckon any Mr Whicher fan would get plenty of enjoyment out of this one.

    Emily – lol! There are many many Theodosiuses and Theodosias, alas, too many dead in infancy. Before that, just about every heir seems to be called Edward! The Georgians did not name their children in ways that are conducive to clear narrative. 🙂

    Danielle – I confess, it was the period detail that really intrigued me. I ended up buying a book on life in London in the Georgian era (any excuse!). I’d love to know what you think of this one. And oh my, thank goodness for modern medicine! 🙂

    Jenny – maybe bypass the book and read up on Georgian England instead? It is such an interesting time. As for the names, I think we have to assume it was a ‘family’ name, because the mother, Anna Maria named several children one or the other until there were two that survived, and her daughter pretty much did the same!

    Kathleen – when I worked in the bookshop several years back, true crime wasn’t considered much of a genre, but these recent releases that are full of period detail do bring a certain pizzazz to the genre! And thank you for your kind words!

    Caroline – thank you, that’s so nice of you!

  10. In Cold Blood reminded me how much I like to read true crime and how much I’ve neglected it in recent years. This sounds like another good one to remedy my neglect, especially since I like my crime to be historic (it’s a little more removed that way or something).

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