A Historical True Crime Case from Scotland

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Book review: Heaven Knows Who

Although this was a little bit difficult to get into in the beginning, it’s worth sticking with for an interesting story by the end. Written in the 1960s about a murder case already a century old, forensic science and technology were worlds ahead even by then, not to mention the advancements we have today. What a different story this all might’ve been if it had occurred in modern times.

The premise is that a woman in Glasgow is brutally murdered and her best friend put on trial for it. The evidence is shaky, lots of stories from neighbors, servants, passersby, shopkeepers and the like are involved. That can be a little difficult to keep track of, especially because many of their names are quite similar, and the author admits as much. The only viable alternative to the best friend as suspect is the elderly man whose house the murdered woman was a servant in; he also happened to be obsessed with her and had trouble understanding that no means no when she repeatedly turned him down. Both suspects seem unlikely candidates for different reasons and that makes for compelling reading – it seems that it HAD to have been one of them, based on all the strange evidence and their behavior after the crime, but how and why? And like I mentioned before, incredibly frustrating when there’s so little technology or forensic science involved compared to modern methods. The police and examiners even leave the body lying where it was found for days afterward while untold number of people traipse through the scene again and again. Crazy!

What stopped me time and again was the language. I admit I’m not at all familiar with the Scottish dialect, especially slang from this era, but many parts of the text, particularly dialogue, are written in it. It lost me. Even trying to sound out some of the words to figure out some similarity to modern English didn’t work for me and then I lost portions of the story. Some understanding was possible through just ignoring it and reading on, but not always. And occasionally the author translates these bits and they make a lot more sense. Why couldn’t that have always been done if it was so necessary to preserve an authentic feel of the times? The story is remarkably well researched and thorough, so I get why it’s helpful to include that kind of dialect, especially if it’s indicative of class or station of the times, but some help for the modern, or maybe non-UK English readers, would’ve improved the story overall. A glossary would be helpful.

It was difficult to get into initially because of the barrage of names (often similar), slang, dialectical language, and events all at once, but bear with this messy beginning section and it makes for a fascinating read, and an excellent contrast to modern research techniques. And a good reminder that truth is always stranger than fiction – even in the context of the case. When the truth eventually comes out in a pretty remarkable twist near the book’s conclusion, it’s much more bizarre than the stories told for the trial.

I received an advance copy in exchange for a review from the publisher.

Heaven Knows Who: The Trial of Jessie M’Lachlan
by Christianna Brand
New ebook edition published May 31, 2016 by Mysteriouspress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, originally published 1960 by Charles Scribner’s Sons

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