Books From The Pantry: The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes: Reviewed by Claire Faulkner

I get lost in a good story. It’s always unintentional on my part, but when I dive into a good read, I can find it difficult to let that story go. I don’t mean that habit of reading until 2 in the morning because you can’t put the book down ‘lost’. I mean, ‘heart and soul lost’. I think that’s also what happened to Elizabeth Haynes when she found some papers relating to the death of Harriet Monkton whilst researching in the National Archive. Something in Harriet’s story touched Haynes and she decided to write about it.

Although fictionalised, The Murder of Harriet Monckton is based on incidents surrounding a true story from 1843. It’s a compelling and compassionate, all too real crime story. The body of a young woman is found behind a chapel in Bromley. The local community are appalled, but we soon learn that not everyone in the town is as innocent as they appear.

Based on written records from the time, including witness statements, press articles and documents from the coroner’s office, Haynes has produced a remarkable novel which transports you deep into the soul of Victorian society, whilst telling the previously untold story of Harriet Monckton.

I enjoyed reading this book. It made me doubt, it made me question, but most of all it made me want to keep on reading. Haynes has a clever writing style and has the ability to make the innocent appear guilty whilst giving the guilty a calm and almost composed presence on the page. But this is always changing, and nobody is who they appear to be, even Harriet has secrets which she diligently documents in her journal each evening.

The characters and suspects all appeared strong to me. We have the local Reverend George Verrall who ministers at the Chapel where the body was found; Frances Williams, a close companion and colleague of the deceased. Thomas Churcher, her would be fiancé, and Richard Field, Harriet’s former landlord and mentor. Throughout the novel, each tell their story about their relationship to Harriet, but who can we believe?

Little clues are peppered here and there, but you have to spot them. The use of language is extremely effective and precise, but not overpowering.

But when the characters start to doubt themselves and one another, as a reader you begin to suspect everyone. With lines like;

“…We both have secrets…neither of us is very good in keeping them…”

and,

“…my voice rose and sounded guilty even to me…”

Which character can you possibly trust? And this book did make me want to trust that some of the characters were innocent, and that the guilty would eventually be brought to justice. I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoyed the story so much.

As you’d imagine from a crime story, truth is a reoccurring theme throughout the book. What is truth to one character, might not be to another. Truth and lies merge seamlessly and Harriet’s story is easily recognisable in the post #MeToo movement.

As one of the characters says, “… Trouble is, the truth is plain and easy to remember. Lies, though, that’s different. You lie once, you have to remember the lie, and the truth doesn’t fade when time passes, but a lie does…”

In real life, Harriet Monckton didn’t receive justice. We will never know what happened to her. But Haynes deals with her story with humanity and compassion. If you’re a fan of reading crime drama, then I think you’ll like this book. I would certainly read more from this author.

There is a tantalising hint in the afterword that Haynes may write another story connected to one of the characters, after she uncovered more information about them in the public records during her research. I do hope this is true, I would very much like another trip to the Victorian town of Bromley. Maybe I’ll know which characters I can really trust by then.

“…I looked at her directly. People do not challenge you when you look them in the eye…”

As one of the characters says “… Trouble is, the truth is plain and easy to remember. Lies, though, that’s different. You lie once, you have to remember the lie, and the truth doesn’t fade when time passes, but a lie does…”

The Murder of Harriet Monckton by Elizabeth Haynes is available from Myriad Books.

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