Longlisted for the 2011 Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year.
A Capital Crime is based on two of the most notorious cases of the 1950s.
Writing A Capital Crime
When an unsafe conviction comes to light, there is an expectation that truth will emerge, final and inexorable. Questions are answered, pardons are given, restitution is made, and a line can be drawn. However, the nature of memory, human psychology and history itself mean that there can never be one definitive version of any series of events. Mysteries always remain, providing room for historians and crime fiction writers alike to slither in amongst the cracks in the narrative, to explore, discover and conjecture.
When I began the research for my novel A Capital Crime, based on the cases of Timothy Evans and John Christie, I had no idea of the complexities involved, or the unfinished business. My interest in the cases began in the 1970s. I’d learnt of the story at a time when I’d just been accused, at school, of something extremely serious, which I hadn’t done. The plight of Timothy Evans, the illiterate 24-year-old van driver hanged in 1950 for killing his baby daughter, who’d insisted to the end that his neighbour, Christie, had strangled not only her, but his wife as well, resonated with me. I was twelve at the time and Evans, according to the prison psychiatrist, had ‘the brain of a twelve-year-old.’ The unfairness of it made a big impression on me, and I thought I knew just how Evans must have felt standing alone in the dock, listening to incomprehensible legal arguments and trying to answer questions he didn’t understand.
The second reason for my interest was geography. The school I attended was in Notting Hill Gate, just up the road from the original (now rebuilt and renamed) Rillington Place. Number ten, where both men had lived, became, in 1953, daily more notorious as corpse after corpse was discovered. As the body count grew, it dawned on the public that two stranglers of women living in one house was a coincidence too far, and that Evans, hanged in their name three years earlier, might not, after all, have been guilty as charged.
Evans was hanged for the murder of 14-month-old Geraldine. He had also been charged with killing his pregnant wife, Beryl, but the charge wasn’t pursued. At the time, there seemed no doubt about Evans’s guilt. Christie, older and better educated than Evans, had been a policeman during the war, and was a respected member of the community. Evans and Beryl were frequently heard arguing, sometimes violently, and Evans, who had a reputation as a liar, made several contradictory statements to the police, including one confession to both murders and one statement claiming that Christie had killed Beryl in a botched attempt at abortion. It is also an incontrovertible fact is that most wives who are murdered die at the hands of their husbands. This much was known. What wasn’t known was that Christie was just as much of a liar as Evans, but for a far more sinister reason: he was a sexually motivated killer who had already strangled two women – both buried in the garden at the time Beryl’s body was discovered on the premises – and was to go on to kill four more, including his wife Ethel, before he was caught.
Ten Rillington Place was a narrow Victorian terraced house, divided into three cramped flats. Photographs show that it was typical of London’s post-war housing-stock: unpainted and crusted with dirt and soot. Britain in the early fifties was a place of unimaginable privation compared to today. The country was battle scarred and exhausted, and, with money scarce, rationing still in force and precious little in the way of building materials to be had, redecorating was not on anyone’s list of priorities. The contemporary observer who wrote of whole streets ‘looking as if they had the plague’ could certainly have been writing about Rillington Place. Even in the mid-70s, when I went to school there, Notting Hill was pretty grim – it wasn’t to become the expensive haven of rock stars, trustafarians and yummy-mummies until many years later. There were many streets like Rillington Place, some splashed in purple or orange paint by colonising hippies, but all of them shabby. By then, however, the houses had indoor bathrooms. Ten Rillington Place had no bathroom but an outside lavatory and a ‘washhouse’ – living in two small rooms with no proper facilities, and, because of the housing shortage, no opportunity to move even had the money been available, it’s easy to see why 19-year-old Beryl felt that she couldn’t cope with another baby.
It’s very much a case of its time. Abortion wasn’t to become legal for almost twenty years, and, given the lack of sex education – and, in the case of Evans, of any education at all – it’s also easy to see why desperate, naïve Beryl trusted Christie, who’d told the couple, untruthfully, that he’d trained as a doctor and was able to carry out the procedure. This gave him the opportunity he wanted to rape and strangle her.
Christie, who claimed to have difficulty remembering things, did not admit to attempting to abort Beryl’s baby. In his confession, he said that she’d begged him to help her commit suicide because she was depressed. He never admitted to killing baby Geraldine.
There were two enquiries into the Evans case. Christie gave evidence to the first, which took place before he was hanged. When Sir John Scott-Henderson QC concluded that Evans had committed both murders, the controversy continued. After representations to the Home Secretary by Ludovic Kennedy, author of the most famous book about the case, second enquiry took place in 1965. This concluded that although it was ‘more probable than not’ that Evans hadn’t killed Geraldine, it was probable that he had killed Beryl. Evans was therefore pardoned for the crime for which he was hanged, but a question remained over the killing of his wife. A pardon does not formally erase a conviction, and Evans’s family applied in 2003 to the Criminal Cases Review Commission for his case to be re-examined. This the Commission declined to do, stating that it would not be in the public interest.
Although the Brabin enquiry was more thorough than its predecessor, it was fifteen years after the murders had taken place, and, in consequence, there remain many unanswered questions about what actually went on at 10 Rillington Place during the week that Beryl and her daughter were killed. Part of the problem was that, during their initial questioning of Evans, the police had settled on a particular timeframe and sequence of events and then persuaded many of the witnesses to tailor their statements accordingly. Evans told the police that he had killed Geraldine two days after her mother, and that she’d been left on her own while he was at work. No-one, during that time, had heard her cry, which suggests that she must have been killed earlier. There had been several workmen in the house at the time, who were using the washhouse (five feet square) to store their tools. Neither they, nor Mrs Christie, nor – amazingly – Christie’s dog had noticed the two bodies that Evans said had been stored for several days in the tiny space.
None of these anomalies point to Evans’s guilt. Of course, they don’t point to his innocence, either, and without the possibility of DNA testing, nothing can be scientifically proved – such forensic tests as there were at the time were inconclusive.
Crime fiction writers like to wrap thing up neatly at the ends of their books, but real murders simply aren’t like that. Some things are destined to remain mysteries forever, and balance of probability, or, to put it legal terms, that which is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, must suffice – which must be pretty cold comfort for poor Evans’s surviving relatives.
© Laura Wilson, 2010
This article first appeared in The Daily Express
Reviews for A Capital Crime
It is a bold move to give a fictional detective a notorious real-life case to investigate… The author’s imaginative reconstructions of both investigations, and the dawning horror of Stratton and his colleagues as they realise they may have the wrong man, is brilliantly handled. The novel explains how a miscarriage of justice can come about, despite the best intentions of the investigators, and Wilson’s historical note at the end of the book is fascinating… a sinister, atmospheric and engaging novel.
Joan Smith, The Sunday Times
This is historical crime fiction at its best.
Matthew Lewin, The Guardian
A Capital Crime is the most fully achieved book Wilson has written… She has a Larkin-like eye for telling detail.
Barry Forshaw, The Independent
In A Capital Crime, Laura Wilson moves from wartime to the bleak early Fifties, bringing with her DI Ted Stratton and the troubled ex-MI5 agent Diana Calthrop and maintaining her extraordinary mastery of the atmosphere, dialogue and morality of London’s past… It works wonderfully.
Marcel Berlins, The Times
The third book in Wilson’s DI Stratton series is even better than the previous, prize-winning instalments… A small masterpiece.
Jessica Mann, The Literary Review
Atmospheric and wonderfully written
Henry Sutton, The Daily Mirror
Wilson brings a grim, postwar London to life without skirting the toughest of social issues, in a finely crafted murder mystery that yields surprises to the very end.
Daneet Steffens, Time Out
Beautifully capturing the confused civility of London in those down-at-heel postwar years, the prose evokes Graham Greene, to touching and enthralling effect.
Christopher Fowler, The Financial Times