The Maul and the Pear Tree:
The Ratcliffe Highway Murders 1811

P.D. James + T.A. Critchley

Sphere Books 1987
A book review by Danny Yee © 2000
In the early hours of Sunday December 8th, 1811, four people in the East End of London, near the Ratcliffe Highway, were brutally murdered; twelve days later a nearby household of three met the same fate. Until Jack the Ripper almost eighty years on, this was to be the most prominent murder case of nineteenth century London, taken up by the national newspapers and raised in Parliament.

In The Maul and the Pear Tree detective novelist P.D. James and police historian T.A. Critchley revisit these murders, describing the discoveries of the crimes, the public response and the frantic but ineffectual hue and cry, and the death in prison of suspect John Williams, who was then buried at a crossroads with a stake through his heart. In a final chapter they reinterpret the evidence, attempting both to clear Williams ("virtually condemned and his memory vilified on evidence so inadequate, circumstantial and irrelevant that no competent court of law would commit him for trial") and to uncover the real authors of the murders (and possibly of Williams' death as well).

James and Critchley allow this story its natural drama, without resorting to unnecessary fictionalisation or exaggeration. They also use it to illustrate how law enforcement at the time worked — or failed to work. London in 1811 had no centralised police force, but relied on uncoordinated action by local magistrates supervising a few policemen, the parish watch, and in this case the Thames River Police and the recently created Bow Street Runners. Parliamentary moves, following the Ratcliffe Highway murders, to reform the system of nightwatchmen came to nothing: not until 1829 was the Metropolitan Police established.

August 2000

External links:
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Related reviews:
- P.D. James - The Murder Room
- P.D. James - Talking about Detective Fiction
- books about crime
- more social history
%T The Maul and the Pear Tree
%S The Ratcliffe Highway Murders 1811
%A James, P.D.
%A Critchley, T.A.
%I Sphere Books
%D 1987
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0722127006
%P 234pp,4pp b&w photos