Sometimes all we really want to read is a really good story. Crime Time: Twenty True Tales of Murder, Madness and Mayhem (Lyons Press, 2021) by J. North Conway offers just that in spades. Gathering together some of the most prolific and little-known stories of violence, robbery, and murder, Conway’s text is a fun anthology that does not cover the well-trodden ground of other, more infamous cases.
Just over 200 pages, this book is a quick and concise look at some criminal cases that captivated and terrified their contemporary societies. The cases are mostly historical British and American crimes, taking place as early as the eighteenth century. There are cases for every interest: murder, bank robbery, conspiracy, and more abound in this book. My favourite cases were either murders that I had never heard of, or that I vaguely recalled but wanted to know more about. The harrowing death of Helen Jewett in 1836, The Strawberry Basket Murder of 1786, The Factory Girl’s Murder in 1832, or the story of the killer John Webster from 1849 were all favourites of mine. As a lover of historical true crime, I particularly enjoyed this anthology. While I was less taken with the tales of robbery or kidnapping, the short, snappy nature of the book ensures that the text maintains a fast pace.
Although it might seem like a simple account of some lesser-known criminal cases, Conway’s ambitions for writing such a book are more complex. In the introduction he writes:
“crime is generally defined as an offence against public law. In 1911, English legal scholar William Blake Odgers defined crime as follows: ‘A wrongful act of such a kind that the State deems it necessary, in the interests of the public, to repress it; for its repetition would be harmful to the community as a whole.’ if we are to adhere to Odgers’s definition of crime, insomuch as we need to repress it in the desired hope of eradicating its repetition, then we must as well illuminate these lesser known crimes to be better able to deal with their horrifying recurrence. If we remain ignorant of particular crimes and their historical significance, how can we ever hope to adequately address and deal with them as a society?”
Conway directs his work here toward a nobler purpose beyond simply recounting grisly stories of criminals in days past. In some ways, he is successful in his ambition. He recounts cases from a period in history where the law was constantly changing, where it existed at all, and these infamous cases are watershed ones, inciting new laws or legislation that is designed to protect victims, “including opening up the debate in America over the death penalty, and legislating juvenile prosecution and kidnapping as a federal offense.” In “The Strawberry Basket Murder,” in which a twelve-year-old Pequot girl was executed for killing a six-year-old girl, making her the youngest female offender to be executed in the United States. Conway points out that, although she may have killed the girl, this does not mean her punishment was just:
“in the United states, the youngest children put to death by the government have all been children of colour. James Arcene, A Cherokee boy, was only ten or eleven years old when he was tried for committing a robbery and murder that resulted in his 1885 hanging in Arkansas. In the twentieth century, the youngest children executed were both African American: thirteen-year-old Fortune Ferguson of Florida (1927) and fourteen-year-old George Stinney of South Carolina (1944).”
Startling and deeply upsetting, Conway’s text does contain these moments of real and critical thoughtfulness in relation to criminals and their victims.
Ultimately, however, Conway’s text is essentially a collection of good stories. This book would appeal to anyone looking to learn more about British and American crime in bite-sized chunks. By no means exhaustive, these short and fast-paced crime stories are compelling and quick. If you want to learn more about any given case, Conway includes both a glossary and an extensive bibliography that will guide you. His book, however, is not the place for a thorough account. He provides the details and little else, but that is precisely what made the book interesting to read, and the opportunity to seek out additional sources is an excellent compromise.
Crime Time was a lot of fun, and its twenty interesting, harrowing, and at times unbelievable stories were cleverly presented.
Please add Crime Time to your Goodreads shelf.
About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.