Book Review

The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes

the murder of harriet monckton

I love novels that take an unsolved crime and seek to solve the mystery and / or write a fictional account of the events leading up to and following on from that crime, and so The Murder of Harriet Monckton was a novel that immediately appealed to me.

From the award-winning and bestselling author of Into the Darkest Corner comes a delicious Victorian crime novel based on a true story that shocked and fascinated the nation.

On 7th November 1843, Harriet Monckton, 23 years old and a woman of respectable parentage and religious habits, is found murdered in the privy behind the chapel she regularly attended in Bromley, Kent.

The community is appalled by her death, apparently as a result of swallowing a fatal dose of prussic acid, and even more so when the surgeon reports that Harriet was around six months pregnant.

Drawing on the coroner’s reports and witness testimonies, Elizabeth Haynes builds a compelling picture of Harriet’s final hours through the eyes of those closest to her and the last people to see her alive. Her fellow teacher and companion, her would-be fiancé, her seducer, her former lover—all are suspects; each has a reason to want her dead.

Brimming with lust, mistrust and guilt, The Murder of Harriet Monckton is a masterclass of suspense from one of our greatest crime writers.

The Murder of Harriet Monckton is told from four different perspectives, taking the people that knew her best (or at least those who thought that they did) to provide us with insight into Harriet’s life and untimely death:

  • Her best friend, Frances Williams
  • Thomas Churcher, Harriet’s would-be suitor
  • The Reverend George Verrall
  • A friend (and more?), Richard Field

Each of these individuals knew Harriet and came under suspicion when Harriet’s body was found.

One thing that I thought Haynes did particularly well was to provide insight into different aspects of Harriet’s character through each of these perspectives, and it soon became clear that none of them, however close they thought they had been to Harriet, knew her completely.  It seemed that each of them knew a different side of Harriet’s character, and it was only through combining the four perspectives that a complete picture of Harriet could be formed.

And what a character she was.  Outwardly pious, she was largely well thought of, and she had excellent prospects having been recruited as a teacher at girls’ school, an opportunity she was excited about, and she had no shortage of admirers.  When the inquest into her death revealed that she was six months pregnant, it came as quite a shock, as very few people were aware of this, and it caused quite a stir, it being 1843 and with Harriet being unmarried.  I liked Harriet a great deal, and she comes across as being relatively progressive in her views (something she shared with fellow teacher Frances) and clearly wanted more from life than most women dared dream of at the time.

Haynes has clearly researched the case thoroughly, and uses historical documents as a basis for the narrative.  Court documents and newspaper reports from the time have been used to show how the cause of death was identified, as well as identifying the individuals who were considered the main suspects at the time, interestingly something that the police and the inquest didn’t agree on.  The inquest itself comes across as being almost farcical.  This is no reflection on Haynes, as I believe that she has represented the inquest as it occurred (with the usual artistic license), but it seemed to me that there were many people who could have borne witness that were not called to give evidence at the inquest.

Haynes gradually builds up to a resolution – something that never happened in real life, with Harriet’s murderer remaining a mystery to this day – and I was thrilled that I came to the same conclusion as the author as to who was behind Harriet’s death before the big reveal.  It is speculation, of course, and we’re unlikely to ever know the truth about the events leading up to her death, but I felt that the conclusion Haynes arrived at was both logical and thrilling.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Murder of Harriet Monckton, and it’s a novel I’d recommend to fans of Anna Mazzola’s The Unseeing.  The Murder of Harriet Monckton was published in 2018 by Myriad Editions, and is available in hardback and digital formats.

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