In the sensational Crippen: a Novel of Murder, author John Boyne brings to life facts surrounding the real Crippen murder case in 1910 London. Boyne presents this world in all its Edwardian self-propriety, depicting Crippen as a complex and enigmatic man who was painted as a monster for murdering his wife, chopping her up and burying pieces of her under the stones in his cellar.
More than anything else, Hawley Harvey Crippen desperately wanted to become a doctor, but his puritanical mother put a stop to such devilish wishes. Unable to be given all the advantages of education so that he might
be free his family, Crippen escapes to America, eventually finding work as a medical assistant.
After his first wife is accidentally killed, Hawley travels to New York. There he meets Cora Turner, a music hall dancer, who convinces him to take her to London so that she can fulfill her dream of becoming a famous diva. Cora naively believes that Hawley is her way out of the gutter, and Hawley plainly believes that Cora is someone who will listen to and believe in him.
It doesn't take long for their marriage to sour. Cora turns into a shrieking, violent harpy, heartless, evil and manipulative, and a flagrantly vulgar, lustful, faithless wife who constantly hounds Hawley for not being good enough
As Cora's disappointment grows at Hawley's inability to fund the lifestyle that she thinks she deserves, poor Hawley endures physical abuse.
Their fights end with her screaming, berating, and threatening him with frying
pots and pans. He eventually agrees to do whatever she asks.
Fascinated by the macabre and proud of his surgical abilities, Hawley is so in love with the art of medicine that for him "the music of pain was nothing more than a melody to work by."
But is he evil enough to have killed Cora and chopped her up into little pieces? London social climbers Lady Louise Smythson and Mrs. Margaret Nash certainly believe so.
Louise Smythson is so convinced that Cora has met a nasty end at the hands of Doctor Crippen that she contacts Detective Walter Dew of New Scotland Yard to report what she thinks is a crime. Meanwhile, on the SS Montrose, Captain Henry Kendall becomes suspicious of two first class passengers, a Mr. Robinson and his son, Edmund, when he catches them in a romantic embrace.
Mr. Robinson is, in fact, Hawley Crippen, traveling incognito with his much-younger mistress, Ethel LeNeve, disguised as a boy. As Boyne charts Hawley and Ethel's trip on the Montrose, he switches back and forth, filling in the details Crippen's life, both the demands of marrying Cora and the rewards of finding a girl like Ethel.
Although society rushes to judgment on Hawley, Boyne cleverly figures that it
is a bit to soon to automatically assume the doctor's guilt. Obviously Hawley's journey from Canada to America to London and then back to Canada is littered with regrets and poor choices, but it
is the heaviness of his marriage to Cora that encumbers his present situation.
Is Hawley Crippen really a murderer? It is a testament to Boyne's skill as a writer that he keeps us guessing until the very end of the novel. One thing is certain - Crippen is certainly swept up by Ethel's passion and loyalty, perhaps even tricked by their dramatic emotional roller coaster ride and their frantic efforts to escape across the Atlantic Ocean to start a new life together in Canada.