Murder at No. 4 Euston Square: The Mystery of the Lady in the Cellar by Sinclair McKay is just the kind of true crime I enjoy: historical, full of intrigue, and the well-researched work of an experienced historian. Not only is this crime compelling, but McKay does not miss a single detail in his account of a baffling murder that goes far beyond a simple whodunit.
The text centers on a four storey Victorian building at No. 4 Euston Square in London, England. Owned and operated by the Bastendorffs, the building served—as many did in the nineteenth century—as a boarding house for either long- or short-term travellers. The Bastendorffs, Severin Bastendorff a German immigrant, felt that their financial and social prospects were good in the spring of 1879. However, on the 9 May that year, things changed and suddenly the darker, very private business of the Bastendorffs, as well as the business of their staff and lodgers, would come under uncomfortable scrutiny. In the coal cellar of the boarding house, the nearly skeletal remains of local eccentric Matilda Hacker were found buried underneath a large pile of coal. Hacker was a former tenant at the Bastendorff’s lodging house, and one who, the household reported, had mysteriously and suddenly left her rooms. Left to decompose for some time, questions immediately arose as to who would have had the motive, means, and opportunity to commit this crime. Scotland Yard eventually zeroed in on the occupants of the house on Euston Square.
The research throughout this book is impeccable. Not only does McKay rely extensively on personal and public documents from the period of the murder and the surrounding years, but there is also a clear effort to paint a broader picture of Victorian culture at the time. The social, political, and financial positions of the players in this story are rendered in minute detail to give a real sense of the conflicts and motivations that certain characters might have faced. While the broad strokes of this story are compelling on their own, McKay peels back the façade of No. 4 Euston Square to reveal the inner workings of a home with a dark secret that belies gentility. McKay recounts the various narrative stereotypes present in the literary culture of the time around boarding houses and their various archetypes; the proliferation of these types, the text posits,
…struck at the very heart of the nature of the boarding house; in the early and mid-Victorian years, with an expanding middle class, there was a concomitant rising sense that the ideal home should be a detached sanctuary: a place where one family dwelled under one roof, in domestic stability, sheltered in every sense from the chaos of the world. Rising middle-class affluence brought a rising taste for privacy. The boarding house, by contrast, introduced a measure of enforced proximity with strangers; total privacy was a practical impossibility (51).
A subtle strength in McKay’s text is the setup of various binaries that are constantly troubled throughout the case: private and public, inside and outside, passive and active. For Victorians, McKay points out, the rise of the nineteenth-century lodging house began to confuse the boundaries of public/private space. By letting strangers into your home to live, work, and eat, and in-effect by then creating a form of business within the home, the public/private boundaries that the Victorians championed were no longer so simple. McKay’s text narrates the worst-case-scenario of this kind of fear: murder and all of the twists and turns that follow the investigation.
However, McKay’s text is not a simple one and the crime does not have a simple answer. Hacker’s murder is the catalyst for a number of discoveries, accusations, and indictments; the residents of No. 4 each point fingers at each other and a larger scandal of sex, money, and violence emerges. Drawing on trial records and the press coverage of the salacious case from the period, McKay expertly leads the reader through the twists and turns in this case—even when we aren’t sure who we should believe.
Murder at No. 4 Euston Square is essential reading for anyone interested in historical true crime with fascinating twists, and for anyone compelled by the social and cultural landscape of the nineteenth century.
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About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a Doctoral Candidate 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 graciously provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.