In Deadly Triangle: The Famous Architect, His Wife, Their Chauffer, and Murder Most Foul (Dundurn Press, 2022), the most recent publication by award-winning Canadian author Susan Goldenberg, the author chronicles a gruesome but scintillating tale of scandal, adultery, and murder.
In 1925, renowned British-born Canadian architect Francis Mawson Rattenbury shocked Victoria, BC society when he divorced his ailing wife and married the decades younger Alma Victoria Pakenham, a woman who had already been married twice. Pariahs in Canada, the Rattenburys removed to Bournemouth, England in order to start a new life. Here they rented a substantial home and raised their son John, and Alma’s son Christopher from her second marriage. However, as Goldenberg relates, the age gap in Francis and Alma’s relationship quickly caught up with them, leaving Alma a dissatisfied and unhappy wife to an old man that she felt little affection for. It was at this time, in the early 1930s, that Alma took into her employ, and not too long after into her bed, George Percy Stoner, a teenaged local boy hired as a chauffeur and handyman.
Alma and George’s illicit affair went on smoothly under Francis’s nose for only a few short months before George murdered Francis Rattenbury in a fit a jealous rage. Rattenbury was killed with three blows to the head with a mallet while the elderly man dozed one evening in his armchair. The early half of Deadly Triangle provides background information up until the murder, the remainder of the book focuses on the investigation, the joint trail of Alma and George, and the tragic events which continued to transpire after justice had taken its course. Unlike some true crime works where the descriptions of court proceedings can become tedious, Goldenberg narrates unfolding events in such a way as to keep things moving and to hold the reader’s attention at every turn of the page.
If the murder of Francis Rattenbury did not provide enough intrigue to this lurid true crime tale, the story of Francis, Alma, and George is filled with lavish spending, drug and alcohol consumption, and scandalous divorces and relationships. Indeed, the lives of both George and Alma are described in great detail in order to set the scene for Francis’s grisly murder in 1935. Goldenberg writes as a conscientious historian, delivering nothing but the facts as they are found in the historical record. The authors opinions do not seep overtly into the text, leaving alleged events and assumptions of guilt to be read as they were interpreted at the time of the investigation and trial.
An aspect of the work which sticks out for a reader with a background in history is the lengths that Goldenberg goes to in order to contextualize her narrative. This is an effort that will also be welcomed by the general readership that this work is geared towards. The contextualization and explanations are simple and clear and do not distract the reader from the wider narrative or the point being made. As the story being told in this book occurred in both Canada and the United Kingdom almost a century ago, Goldenberg’s effort to convert currency and calculate the modern equivalent of historic amounts of money is particularly informative for a modern reader. These calculations aid in contextualizing the arguments being made were value and amounts of money are significant.
Although Goldenberg does reference the other works written on the murder and subsequent trial, it is only to a very minimal extent. Given the high-profile nature and the long-standing interest in the case, both in Canada and in the United Kingdom, it would have been a positive addition from a historical perspective if the work had included deeper discussions on the nature of the other material written on the murder. Additionally, while the author does draw extensively from the historical record and quotes extensively, a wider discussion of the available sources would have added a further layer of intrigue for those interested in the production of history and the process of writing a book such as this. These critiques aside, however, Goldenberg has crafted a narrative which appeals widely to true crime lovers and historians alike.
Riveting from cover to cover, Deadly Triangle does much more than recount the murder of Francis Rattenbury, it transports the reader back to a not-so-distant age when the world and its attitudes toward such things as extramarital affairs were altogether different from what they are today. Goldenberg’s work, coupled with an altogether dramatic narrative from start to finish, is written succinctly and leaves the reader craving more at the end of every page.
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Connor E. R. DeMerchant is an historian from Kingston, New Brunswick, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History from the University of New Brunswick – Saint John and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In the fall of 2021, he began a PhD in history at the University of New Brunswick – Fredericton in the field of Caribbean history. Connor enjoys researching all aspects of Britain and its global empire, including the Caribbean, with his PhD research focusing on poor white communities in St. Vincent and Barbados. When not being an academic, Connor enjoys doing genealogy, collecting vintage photos, rug-hooking, and thrifting.