‘Something has happened to Lucie.’ – People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry

July 27, 2012 at 9:05 pm (Book review, books, Crime)

  In July of the year 2000, two young Englishwomen, Lucie Blackman and Louise Phillips, went to Tokyo to work as hostesses in a night club called Casablanca, in the city’s Roppongi district. The girls’ chief duties at the Casablanca involved entertaining  ‘salarymen’ after work: flattering  and cajoling them, mixing their drinks, performing karaoke with them, and just generally helping them relax and let off steam after a presumably hard day at the office. It’s a setup that has no precise equivalent in the West.

Lucie and Louise had several reasons for embarking on this line of work. First, there was the element of adventure. Second, there was the chance to make good money by expending minimal effort. This was especially true for Lucie, who had racked up an impressive amount of credit card debt that she couldn’t seem to get out from under.

Hostesses were expected to go out on dinner dates with the club’s clients. This activity actually had a name: dohan. It brought the club additional revenue, and the women got a free dinner out of the deal. But that is as far as things were supposed to go. Hostesses were not expected to get into the client’s car and go elsewhere with him. Yet that was exactly what Lucie proposed to do on July 1, 2000. She called Louise that afternoon to apprise her of those plans, and to assure her that their own plans for later that evening could still go forward.  Lucie called Louise again early that evening to let her know how her ‘date’ was going. The client had made her a gift of a much-needed cell phone! Sounding excited and happy, Lucie told Louise that she’ll be returning to their apartment within the hour. About ten minutes after that conversation, she left a message on the cell phone belonging to her boyfriend Scott.

That was the last anyone heard from her.

[From this point forward, you may encounter ‘spoilers,’ although I feel that I’m barely scratching the surface of this dense, complex narrative.]

When Lucie Blackman failed to return to the apartment that evening, Louise Phillips knew at once that something was wrong. It wasn’t merely that Lucie hadn’t returned: she had failed to call to say she would be late. This was totally unlike her. She always let people know where she was, always kept in contact. This was especially true where Louise was concerned. The two had been extremely close friends, having known each other since they were girls. Lucie would not fall silent in this way – not unless something were wrong.

Lucie was only an hour late when Louise called her mother in Britain to tell her: “Something has happened to Lucie.” Gradually, ineluctably, this mystery spread outward, engulfing all those who knew and loved Lucie Blackman  in a world of anguish and anxiety, and then almost unimaginable pain and grief. As for her immediate family, already fractured by her parents’ acrimonious divorce, things went from bad to worse.

In the prologue to People Who Eat Darkness, Richard Lloyd Parry sets out the basic circumstances of Lucie’s disappearance. This is followed by the story of Lucie’s childhood and youth. Her early history is unremarkable, and for me this was the least interesting part of the book. But in Part Two, Lucie and Louise arrive in Tokyo. Richard Lloyd Parry is the Tokyo Bureau Chief of The Times of London, and when he writes about this fascinating, teeming metropolis, he is clearly in his element. The writing is compelling; the story even more so. Parry has had to sift  through a tangle of material in an effort to present a coherent narrative. He succeeds brilliantly in this effort. Moreover, he renders a society unfamiliar to many of us in vibrant, convincing hues.

In the prologue we’re told that Louise found Lucie’s actions in getting into a car with a  strange man rather peculiar. Parry states that in his experience, Japanese men generally come across, in social situations at least, as more reserved and less aggressive than their Western counterparts. He has a theory about how this difference in temperament  affects the mindset of hostesses from other countries:

The effect of this, for many foreigners, is to disable instincts of caution and suspicion that guide and protect them at home….Japan felt safe; Japan was safe; and under its enchantment they made decisions that they would never have made anywhere else.

One cannot help concluding that this perception – or rather, misperception – made possible the cunning manipulations of Joji Obara and his ilk. (Obara was not the only one to victimize young foreign women, but he seems to have been the most prolific and the most heartless.) A Japanese judge put it succinctly:

‘To violate the dignity of so many victims, in order to satisfy his lust, is unprecedented and extremely evil….There are no extenuating circumstances whatsoever for acts based on determined and twisted motives.’

Richard Lloyd Parry covered this story from its beginning. His book was published in the UK last year. For over a decade, he followed the twists and turns of the Lucie Blackman case: her disappearance, the discovery of her remains, the arrest, the court case, and much else. The crime seems to have acquired a personal dimension for him; he shared, at least to a degree, in the suffering of those who loved this unfortunate young woman. Indeed, what else can one conclude, from a cri de coeur such as this:

What if Obara had admitted guilt, begged  forgiveness, wept out his black heart?…Imagine the most extreme vindication and retribution-nothing that mattered would be alleviated or improved by it. There was no satisfaction that could be imagined, only greater and lesser degrees of humiliation and pain. Lucie had been a unique being, a precious, beloved human creature. She was dead, and nothing would ever bring her  back.

This is not to imply that Parry lost his objectivity. On the contrary, People Who Eat Darkness is a masterpiece of scrupulous reportage, investigative journalism at its finest.

Parry is able to elucidate many aspects of this crime, but not the mystery at the very heart of it, as he himself admits:

Humans are conditioned to look for truth that is singular and focused, hanging for all to see like a clear, full moon in a cloudless sky. Books about crime are expected to deliver such a photographic image, to serve up a story as dry as a shelled and salted nu. But as a subject, Joji Obara sucked away brightness; all that was visible was smoke or haze, and the twinkling upon it of external light. The shell, in other words, was all that was to be had of the nut.

In other words, one gazed and gazed, and beheld only darkness – the heart of darkness embodied in Obara, a darkness that we all hope, for ourselves and our loved ones, never to encounter in this life.


I am aware that this is not a book for all readers. Parts of it are difficult to read. It  kept me up some nights. Yet I am not sorry to have read it. I believe that People Who Eat Darkness belongs in that select pantheon of true crime classics inhabited by books such as Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson, The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule, Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss, and of course, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.


Below is footage of a talk presented by Richard Lloyd Parry at Temple University’s Japan campus in September of 2011:


Lucie’s father Tim Blackman has established the Lucie Blackman Trust.

Lucie Blackman September 1, 1978 – July 1, 2000

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‘The sense of being trapped in a box-like compartment….’ – Murder in the First-Class Carriage, by Kate Colquhoun

April 21, 2012 at 9:28 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Crime)

  An empty railway carriage spattered with blood and gore. The body of a badly beaten man lying on a railway embankment. And a mystery….

These are the main elements of a story told with exceptional skill by Kate Colquhoun. The year is 1864. The crime is both violent and perplexing. And one of  its most baffling aspects, both for those who were reading about it and the investigators, is contained in the book’s title. How on earth could such a dastardly deed be done in a First Class Carriage?

Murder in the First-Class Carriage reminded me in many ways of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. As in Kate Summerscale’s fascinating narrative, we learn from  Colquhoun about advances being made in the art and science of police work in mid-Victorian Britain. For instance, in 1842, Police Commissioner Sir Richard Mayne and another highly placed official in the force, Charles Rowan, were tasked with creating a different kind of policeman:

No longer concerned primarily with the prevention of crime and without the visible authority of a uniform, these were the first detectives: eight conscientious men were selected, including Stephen Thornton and Jack Whicher. Encouraged by the adulation of writers like Dickens, Britain had broadly allowed itself to be seduced into a belief in the brilliance of these perspicacious, dogged, plain-clothed detectives.

Colquhoun then appends this cautionary note: “Scepticism…was growing, and admiration was balanced by distrust and delays and irresolution from the elite investigators emphasised their fallibility.” Ironically, it was doubts like these that were responsible for derailing Jack Whicher’s investigation of the murder at Road Hill House. (The suspicions of Mr. Whicher concerning this terrible murder, which occurred in1860, were ultimately proven to be only too well founded.)

Victorians were both fascinated and repelled by the triumphant speed and ruthless efficiency of the railroads:

Woven into the excitement of railway travel, a corresponding nervousness had developed about the loss of individual control. The sense of being trapped in a box-like compartment, whirled along at speed and treated like just one in a stream of disposable, moveable goods was, at best, disorientating and, at worst, threatening.

Colquhoun cites the fears of Dombey, as articulated by his creator Charles Dickens in Dombey and Son:

‘The power that forced itself upon its iron way…defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it…was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.’

Murder in the First-Class Carriage is subtitled, “The First Victorian Railway Killing.” This raised the question in my mind as to how many more such crimes had occurred. Helpful information on this topic is provided by the British Transport Police, in the history section of that organization’s website.  (Really, one can only be grateful to the British for their obsession with the minutiae of their own history. It benefits all of us Anglophiles no end!)


Murder in the First-Class Carriage lacks the element of pathos that made The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher such a riveting and affecting read. Still, Kate Colquhoun’s writing, by turns incisive and lyrical, is every bit as good as Kate Summerscale’s. In addition to the telling a riveting story, Murder in the First-Class Carriage is a rich compendium of the mores and folkways that characterized the denizens of mid-Victorian England. I loved it.

Kate Colquhoun, with a copy of Mr. Briggs’ Hat, the British title of Murder in the First-Class Carriage.

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The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox, by Nina Burleigh

October 2, 2011 at 1:35 am (Book review, books, Crime, Italy)

  This is the story of a brutal killing and its sensational aftermath. It is also the story of ancient place, with a history that is at once glorious and strange, and sometimes violent.

On the night of November 1 2007, Meredith Kercher was found murdered in a house she shared with several other young persons of varying nationalities. Like her housemates, Meredith, herself a British national, was a university exchange student in Perugia, Italy. Three individuals were charged with the crime and brought to trial: Rudy Gude, a resident of the city and native of the Ivory Coast, Amanda Knox, an American from Seattle, and Amanda’s Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito. All three were found guilty and sent to prison. Attention is now focused on Knox, who is currently appealing her conviction. A decision in this matter is expected any day now.

Nina Burleigh reviews all aspects of this crime with admirable lucidity and attention to detail. She’s especially enlightening on the subject of the Italian legal system, which in some aspects is similar to our own. There are, however, differences. For instance, juries are not held to the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. Indeed, one assistant prosecutor declared, “Only God has no doubts.”

What Burleigh does in her book that I found very valuable – not to mention fascinating – is to put this crime in a cultural context. Where the history of Perugia is concerned, I came away with the sense of a place where evil and depredation are inextricably yoked to a transcendent beauty. One could also say this of Naples, a city I first journeyed to in the Spring of 2009. I’m thinking of the title I bestowed on my post about that city: ” Chaotic, anarchic, harrowing, defaced… and sublime.”   Naples is home to two Caravaggio masterpieces, the veiled Christ, and many other priceless works of art.  It is also home to its own crime family: the Camorra. (In 2006, at the astonishingly tender age of 27, journalist Roberto Saviano penned Gomorrah, an expose of this notorious organization. The book’s jacket flap tersely informs readers that as a result of the book’s explosive content, Saviano “…has been placed under police protection.”)

Then there’s the Monster of Florence. Of Florence..? Sadly, yes. (For more on this, see The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi.)

There is also the Beast of San Gregorio. Her name was Caterina Fort. Think carefully before you pursue further knowledge of this woman. I personally would be happy never to have heard of her.

Perugia is  home to great art, magnificent churches, and numerous medieval artifacts. There are some jarring juxtapositions: “For nine months out of the year, the San Lorenzo duomo steps are an Italian Amsterdam, with young people sunning themselves and drinking beer from plastic cups and smoking spinelli–joints filled with hash.”

Indeed, as Burleigh tells it, life for Perugia’s college students was a Bacchanalian feast, with numerous bars and discos open till the wee hours, liberal consumption of drugs and alcohol, sex on offer anywhere and everywhere. The pace of the partying was frenetic. The life of the mind seemed the last thing on anyone’s mind.

And yet….

Inside the duomo, a stone wall’s width away from the party scene outside, lies  the town’s most precious relic, the Virgin Mary’s wedding ring, a circle of green onyx that pilgrims and knights supposedly rescued from Jerusalem in the fifteenth century through great peril. The ring is  secreted in a locked silver reliquary tucked high in the wall behind red velvet curtains, accessible only by a ladder and pulley system. It has been displayed only once a year for the last five hundred years. The reliquary can be opened only with fourteen different keys, held by fourteen different prominent Perugians.

For me, the most eye-opening content in this book involved the description of pagan rites whose practice allegedly persists alongside the rites of traditional Christianity:

Despite the fact that the Pope resides among them, Italians are not as Catholic as one might expect. Italy remains, as the journalist Luigi Barzini put it, “gloriously pagan.” It Italy, “Christianity has not deeply disturbed the happy traditions and customs of ancient Greece and Rome” but is “a thin veneer over older customs.”

(I was pleased to encounter the name of Luigi Barzini. I well remember his celebrated work, published in 1964, claiming pride of place on my mother’s bookshelves. She had just begun traveling to that storied place, and she loved Barzini’s book.) 

What, you may well ask, does all of this have to do with the crime that forms the centerpiece of The Fatal Gift of Beauty? The answer lies primarily with the crime scene, and the way certain features of it struck Giuliano Mignini, the magistrate whose brief it was to investigate and prosecute the murder of Meredith Kercher. Mignini, a devout Catholic, was struck by several odd aspects of the crime scene. First, there was the broken bedroom window that lacked any trace evidence whatsoever, either organic or inorganic, as though “whoever had come in through that window–if anyone had–possessed a superhuman power of levitation….” Then there was the cat’s blood on the lower floor.

Possibly most bizarre of all, there was a trail of bloody footprints made by a single shoe: “The removal of one shoe during Masonic initiation is a piece of pagan symbolism so ancient that historians don’t even understand its significance.” Burleigh continues:

After studying numerous statues with one sandal and myths such as Cinderella, involving lost shoes, or the laming or hobbling of one foot, as in the Achilles’ heel, the Italian cultural anthropologist Carlo Ginzburg theorized that the ritual laming of a foot or the removal of one shoe was a symbol of stepping into and out of the underworld.

There’s more – quite a bit more. By the time I finished this part of the book, I wanted to run and hide somewhere. (A church or synagogue would have served nicely.) Inevitably, these and other characteristics of the crime scene raised the specter of Satanic ritual.

In the final section of her book, Nina Burleigh brings us firmly back down to earth, to the hard reality of this case. She lays out the evidence in a clear and forthright manner. As the investigation and the trial have run their course, Amanda Knox has exhibited some strange  behaviors. At times it was just a matter of an inappropriate demeanor. She seems throughout to have exhibited an oddly flat affect when faced with the horror of her roommate’s murder. At one point, while being questioned in open court, she shocked those present by imitating the sounds a person would make after his or her throat had been slashed. She has done herself no favors by these actions, but neither do they in and of themselves signify guilt.

I picked this book up last week and read it through to the end, with no break. It was riveting.

Closing arguments in Amanda Knox’s appeal were heard today. And once again, hundreds of reporters and photographers descended on Perugia. Click here for coverage by CBS News.

A verdict is expected on Monday.

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The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale: a book discussion

October 18, 2009 at 9:08 pm (Book clubs, books, Crime, History, Uncategorized)

jwhicher I confess I approached last Tuesday night’s discussion with a certain diffidence. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher presents such an array of complex issues, I doubted I could do the book justice. But – doubts were vanquished almost as soon as we began. I have the incredible good luck to be associated with The Usual Suspects, a gratifyingly brainy group of people who brought their impressive intellects to bear full force upon Kate Summerscale’s many-layered, remarkable narrative. (Click here to read my original review of  this book. Also, be warned: this post contains spoilers.)

I began our discussion  by a reading a passage from the introduction:

“A Victorian detective was a  secular substitute for a prophet or a priest. In a newly uncertain world, he offered science, conviction, stories that could organise chaos. He turned brutal crimes – the vestiges of the beast in man – into intellectual puzzles. But after the investigation at Road Hill the image of the detective darkened. Many felt that Whicher’s inquiries culminated in a violation of the middle-class home, an assault on privacy, a crime to match the murder he had been sent to solve….

That paragraph in its entirety summed up many of the issues explored by the author in this book.

I next asked everyone to look at the Kent family tree. Several of the birth and dates there given serve as a sobering reminder of how prevalent infant death still was, even in the mid-nineteenth century in a progressive Western country.

I then went on to provide some biographical information on Kate Summerscale.  This Wikipedia entry pretty much sums up what I was able to find. In addition, here is an interview with the author:

Then it was time to look at the murder itself, and the context in which it took place. When I asked what emotion this core aspect of the book evoked, someone immediately responded, “horror.” Everyone agreed at once. It seemed an especially heinous crime, compounded as it was of cool calculation and unimaginable rage. As Summerscale puts it, concerning the weeks that followed the grisly revelation :

“The puzzle of the Road Hill case lay in the killer’s peculiar combination of heat and cold, planning and passion. Whoever had murdered, mutilated and defiled Saville Kent must be horribly disturbed, possessed by unnaturally strong feelings: yet  the same person, in remaining so far undiscovered, had shown startling powers of self-control.

The author concludes this paragraph by pointing out that “Whicher took Constance’s cold quiet as a clue that she had killed her brother.” And though he was made to pay dearly for it, he was exactly right to do so.

We all agreed that this book was greatly enriched by the frequent allusions to works that were seminal in the evolution of the detective fiction genre. Some time ago, the suspects had discussed The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, so it was particularly enjoyable to encounter this great writer once again, in this context. Collins coined the phrase “detective fever,” declaring that Charles Dickens had a bad case of it where the Road Hill House crime was concerned.

Inspector Bucket in Bleak House and Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone are both to some extent modeled on the real life character of Jonathan Whicher. Another novel mentioned in connection with the Road Hill House case is Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. When I first read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, I was intrigued by the mention of this title. It was a book – and author – which rang only the faintest of bells for me, dating from my English major days at Goucher College and Georgetown University. I then tried to read it, but got bogged down in the rather protracted description of Audley Court with which the novel begins.

This time, after completing my second traversal of Summerscale’s book, I decided yet again to read Lady Audley. And a strange thing happened:I was mesmerized by this novel! Once past that slow-moving opening passage, I found myself completely engrossed in a genuinely fascinating story. It was hard for me to believe I that a work of such positively juicy readability was originally published in 1862. Mary Elizabeth Braddon, you sorceress – where have you been all my life?  audley

Lady Audley’s Secret is the exemplar of a genre known as the novel of sensation. Attaining great popularity in the 1860’s and 1870’s, such works aimed to jolt the reader by turning certain staid Victorian conventions on their collective heads, and by dealing deliberately in shocking subject matter, such as “adultery, theft, kidnapping, insanity, bigamy, forgery, seduction and murder” (Wikipedia). Well gosh, no wonder that was so much fun!

To a considerable extent, novels of sensation were the forerunners of the detective story, so they should naturally be of interest to those of us who are ardent readers of crime fiction. Kate Summerscale advances the possibility that “…the purpose of detective investigations, real and fictional…[is] to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then to solve the puzzle, to make it go away.”  Summerscale goes on to quote Raymond Chandler to the effect that “The detective story…is a tragedy with a happy ending.” Our group kicked this provocative observation around a bit. IMHO, this is Chandler speaking with tongue firmly in cheek. This is, after all, the man who wrote, at the conclusion of one of the greatest mystery novels ever written:

“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.

No happy ending there ( though the writing itself is stunning.) Summerscale’s theory, on the other hand, has real merit.

I’ll have more to say about Lady Audley’s Secret in a later post. But first: more on the book under consideration Tuesday night.

As with much sensation fiction, madness runs as a dark undercurrent throughout Kate Sumerscale’s narrative. The Kent family was a blended one, comprising Samuel Kent’s children by his first wife, Mary Ann Windus, and those he fathered subsequently by Mary Drewe Pratt.

Samuel Kent

Samuel Kent

Mary Ann Windus was a sad case. Married to Samuel Kent in 1829 at the age of twenty-one, she became repeatedly pregnant. Out of a total ten live births, only five children survived infancy. When still young, Mary Ann purportedly showed signs of ‘weakness and bewilderment of intellect.’ The repeated pregnancies and infant deaths she had to endure can only have made matters worse.

Also unhelpful was the introduction into the household of Mary Drewe Pratt as governess to Constance, who was born in 1844. Pratt, an apparently imperious presence on the domestic scene, disparaged and marginalized Mary Ann Windus. The latter finally died in 1852. A year later, Samuel Kent married Mary Drewe Pratt. Proving to be just as fecund as her predecessor, Pratt gave birth to three children in quick succession. Francis Saville, born in 1856, was the murder victim in 1860.

The initial revelations concerning the murder caused a kind of feeding frenzy among members of the public and the press. Jack Whicher obstinately insisted that Constance Kent was the culprit, but his methods were blunt and ham handed, and he lacked any convincing evidence. People found another theory more compelling; namely, that Samuel Kent and the nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, were lovers and had been observed in flagrante by little Saville. Gough slept in the same room with the younger children and was present when Saville was taken from his bed. Although she insisted that she had slept through the abduction, neither seeing nor hearing anything, she nevertheless made an attractive suspect.

In the short term, no further compelling evidence appeared. No breakthrough was achieved. The hubbub gradually died down.  Whicher,  his investigative techniques and seemingly arbitrary conclusions thoroughly vilified by both the press and the public at large, slunk back to London. The public’s attention was diverted to other matters. (Whicher stayed with the police force for several more years. After retiring from the force, he became a private “agent of inquiry,” a career path similar to that of Anne Perry’s fictional protagonist William Monk. It’s also worth noting that amid the general disapproval, Whicher did have his defenders.)

Jonathan Whicher

Jonathan Whicher

Then, in 1865, Constance Kent came forward and confessed to the murder of her step-brother.  Her initial explanations in regard to her motive tended to be murky and contradictory. Ultimately, however, it emerged that Constance was possessed of a great animus toward her stepmother. Mary Drewe Pratt had sewn a huge resentment in the bosom of Mary Ann Windus’s daughter by denigrating and ultimately seeking to replace her own mother. To make matters worse, Pratt displayed blatant favoritism toward the children she and Samuel had together. With Saville’s murder, she seems to have reaped the fruits of her own actions. If her sole aim was to secure Samuel Kent for her husband and thereby make a place for herself among the middle classes of nineteenth century England, she achieved her goal, but at a terrible price.

Constance Kent

Constance Kent

When it became known that Constance had confessed of her own free will, the question arose as to whether she, like her mother, suffered from “the taint of madness.” How else to account for an adolescent girl’s commission of such a terrible act? In recent years, the theory has surfaced that the real trouble – or at least, the medical trouble – in the Kent family was caused by Samuel’s having had syphilis, and having passed the infection on to Mary Ann Windus. Among its other scourges, this disease can cause early infant death and mental instability. Men were extremely reluctant to seek medical help for this particular ailment, or even to admit to be suffering from it.

At any rate, Summerscale advances this theory cautiously, warning that “Syphilis is an affliction easy to suspect in retrospect.”

We talked about the strange lack of emotion displayed by members of the Kent family. Samuel is reported to have been seen weeping at one point, but we are not told of any other demonstrative displays. This is perhaps understandable in the context in which the crime occurred. First of all, Summerscale could report on only what was supported by written testimony. And this was an era in which people – especially those belonging to the upper classes –  were taught to reign in their emotions.

The one member of the Kent family to whom Constance felt genuinely close was her brother William. Indeed, several years before the murder, the two had attempted to run away to sea. Some commentators on the crime believe that it would have been impossible for Constance alone to have abducted and killed Saville. She must, in other words, have had an accomplice. Was that accomplice William? Proof positive of this has never been found. Many, though, consider it to be highly likely. Our group was of that opinion. We felt it likely that Constance deliberately “took the rap” for the crime, insisting that she acted alone. This admission effectively lifted the cloud of guilt from other members of the Kent family. Constance would have been especially keen to have William no longer suspected of complicity. And in fact, William went on to enjoy a distinguished career in microscopy and marine biology.

William Saville-Kent, in the 1880's

William Saville-Kent, in the 1880's

As we discussed this outcome, Pauline put this question to us: in the matter of the murder of Saville Kent, was justice done? The group’s consensus: in the main, it was not. Constance Kent did serve a 20-year prison term, but she was still only 41 years old upon her release. Assuming the name Ruth Emilie Kaye, she emigrated to Australia, where she received training as a nurse. She never married and spent the remainder of her life in service to others. And it was a very long life: Constance Kent, aka Ruth Emilie Kaye, died in 1944 at the age of 100. Her obituary mentions that at one time, she nursed lepers.

It would appear  that Constance was trying to make restitution for her crime to society. Did she achieve this? It’s a subjective question, one that can never be answered conclusively. (And the same question could be asked of the aforementioned Anne Perry.) Even if one wishes to concede that a good faith effort was made here – What, then, about William Kent? His role in the events at Road Hill House was never proven and remains a matter for speculation. As an adult, he was free to live a full and productive life.

From the question of justice in this particular instance, our discussion widened to include the issue of the death penalty. It was necessary to tread carefully here, as people have strong opinions on this issue, but I thought our group handled that part of the discussion with admirable tact and diplomacy. I observed that Britain had come a long way since the day when executions were a form of public spectacle. Pauline, our “token Brit,” told us about the John Christie and Derek Bentley cases. Both involved wrongful execution; the ensuing revulsion proved instrumental in the decision to abolish capital punishment in the UK.

Several of us had read “Trial by Fire,” an article in the September 7 issue of the New Yorker concerning the possible wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004. (At one point in this article, author David Grann recounts the following case from British history:

“In the summer of 1660, an Englishman named William Harrison vanished on a walk, near the village of Charingworth, in Gloucestershire. His bloodstained hat was soon discovered on the side of a local road. Police interrogated Harrison’s servant, John Perry, and eventually Perry gave a statement that his mother and his brother had killed Harrison for money. Perry, his mother, and his brother were hanged.

Two years later, Harrison reappeared. He insisted, fancifully, that he had been abducted by a band of criminals and sold into slavery. Whatever happened, one thing was indisputable: he had not been murdered by the Perrys.

This was the famous Campden Wonder, which I first heard of from our seemingly omniscient Smithsonian tour guide, Ros Hutchinson.)

We talked about other high profile murder cases in which justice has proved elusive. We’ve all had the experience of learning of a verdict or a sentence and exclaiming in disbelief: How could they? or words to that effect. What is the answer to this perennial question? Mine is that just as human beings are hard wired to want to solve puzzles, so are we equally hardwired to yearn for justice – and to keep up the relentless effort to see that justice is served.


Kate Summerscale won the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction for The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.

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Art and Intrigue II: The Gardner Heist, by Ulrich Boser

March 27, 2009 at 12:12 pm (Art, Book review, books, Crime)

heist At 12:30 AM on March 18, 1990, two men gained entrance to Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Employing subterfuge – they were dressed as policemen – they had deceived the two duty guards, whom they tied up and left in the basement of the building. As of that moment, the  impostors had the run of the lightly secured premises. They proceeded to help themselves to some of the world’s most priceless objets d’art. At 2:41 AM, they left as they had entered, through the building’s side entrance:

“The thieves were inside for a total of eighty-one minutes and nabbed thirteen works of art, valued today at over $500 million. They’ve just pulled off the largest robbery in history. In the wet, empty streets, the thieves and their faceless associates start up their cars and speed down Palace Road, and as their tail-lights disappear into the night, so do the Gardner masterpieces.

Thus did an audacious dead-of-night caper instantly attain the status of legend, giving rise to questions that have perplexed police, federal agents, private investigators, and art lovers for almost two decades: Who masterminded this heist?  And where is the stolen art?

This is the question that at first intrigued, then perplexed, then ultimately obsessed journalist Ulrich Boser. Boser’s quest led him first to  Harold Smith, a man who, in the course of a career as an international expert on art theft, had amassed an enviable track record when it came to locating stolen art work and jewelry. For years, Smith had focused on the Gardner theft and occasionally came tantalizingly close to cracking the case. But he died without solving the mystery.

harold-smith Spending time with Harold Smith was an edifying experience for Boser; it was, vicariously, for me as well. Despite being ravaged by an aggressive form of skin cancer, Smith never lost his drive, his acuity, or his generosity. Up to the end, he maintained a vigorous work ethic enlivened by a sense of humor that was probably his salvation. When Smith died in 2005, Boser vowed to take up the search where his mentor had left off.

As the investigation proceeded, Boser encountered, among others, members of the so-called New England Mafia, the most notorious of which is the famously elusive James “Whitey” Bulger.

bulger06042008 Bulger and others of his ilk have long been suspected of, at the very least, harboring guilty knowledge concerning the Gardner theft and the whereabouts of the stolen treasures. Now, I admit that I often think of Boston as an island of cultural riches amid the sea of vulgarity threatening to engulf the rest of the country. I have heard about the existence of a criminal underworld in the environs, but I was rather taken aback by the viciousness of some of its denizens, as described by Boser. I found myself thinking back to Martin Scorsese’s harrowing film, The Departed.

In addition to the aforementioned mobsters, we meet members of various law enforcement agencies. My particular favorite among these was Charlie Sabba, a New Jersey police officer with a Bachelor of fine Arts degree from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.  A painter himself  and passionate about art in general, he put me in mind of Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler and P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh.

The list of dramatis personae goes on. There are run-of-the-mill grifters,  art and antiques dealers, and a few who are a  bit of both. Boser  followed the trail of the missing masterpieces to Ireland, where many in the know believe they are hidden. (Whitey Bulger himself is rumored to be concealed somewhere on the Emerald Isle.)

The book features an intriguing section about how great painting affects some viewers:

“Philosopher Richard Wollheim made three trips to Germany to view the Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grunewald’s sixteenth-century masterwork, but each time he looked at the canvas, he found it unbearable and had to turn away. There is a book dedicated to people who cry in front of paintings, and a disease called Stendhal’s Syndrome, where extensive exposure to Old Master paintings can cause dizziness, confusion, and hallucinations.

The book referenced in this passage is Pictures & Tears by James Elkins, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  And as for the Isenheim Altarpiece, read this description, provided by Hungary’s superb  Web Gallery of Art. Then gaze upon the altarpiece itself (by clicking on links at lower left). You may then better understand Richard Wollheim’s reaction.

(Not to be nitpicking, but Colmar, home to the Unterlinden Museum which houses the Isenheim Altarpiece, has been part of France since 1945.)

Generally the pace of The Gardner Heist is lively, although as events unfold, Boser has some difficulty keeping the suspense ratcheted up. I think this is primarily the fault of the narrative arc of the story. It starts with a bang – the lightning strike, in the dead of night, by the two daring thieves.  Boser then goes on to detail the investigation, which is, alas, a tale of fizzling leads, dashed hopes, and profound frustration. Ultimately, one does tire of all the evasive tactics, coyness, legal maneuvering, posturing, and outright lying on the part of many of the individuals interviewed by Boser. Especially since the stakes are so very, very high…

Chez Tortoni,  by Edouard Manet

Chez Tortoni, by Edouard Manet

Storm on the Sea of Galilee, by Rembrandt

Storm on the Sea of Galilee, by Rembrandt

The Concert, by Vermeer

The Concert, by Vermeer

The Rembrandt is the only known seascape by that great master. The Vermeer is one of only thirty-four works positively identified as being by him. And as for Chez Tortoni, there is such mystery in that man’s expression…  More than once, while engrossed in The Gardner Heist, I wanted to stand up and shout, enough already! Give us back our paintings, our art, our patrimony.


In the fall of 1990, my husband and I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for the first time. Just beyond the entryway, there was a table displaying reproductions of the stolen art. Contact numbers for the FBI and the Boston Police were provided. “If you have any information…”  Since then, there has been plenty of information, ranging from tantalizing to fraudulent, virtually all of it useless.

In 2005, The Boston Globe published this multimedia review by Steve Kurkjian of the facts of the case. And in “A Wounded Museum Feels a Jolt of Progress” (New York Times,  March 13, 2009),  Abby Goodnough updates us on the Gardner’s efforts to move into the future – this, despite the strictures forbidding change that “Mrs. Jack” placed in her will. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum remains, after all, a repository of countless treasures placed in the most gracious of settings.

The Isabella Sewart Gardner Museum

The Isabella Sewart Gardner Museum

Isabella Stewart Gardner, by John Singer Sargent

Isabella Stewart Gardner, by John Singer Sargent


murderg A final note: one of my favorite mystery authors, Jane Langton, sets most of her novels in the greater Boston area, where she is a long time resident. Langton published Murder at the Gardner in 1988. I often wonder what she thought when she opened her paper on that March morning two years later.

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