Harman brilliantly reconstructs the crime and its impact ... Murder by the Book does not read like a Victorian whodunit or 19th-century melodrama. Harman tells the story straight, without recourse to suspense or surprises. Instead she keeps us captivated through a series of hard facts and incredible events ... This is an assiduously researched and superbly written book that ends with Harman examining unanswered questions, and reminding us that truth can be stranger than fiction, particularly when inspired by it.
As in her biographies, Harman here demonstrates a flair for distilling reams of research into a succinct, lively narrative. The book is an exemplar of how to write taut, issue-driven historical nonfiction. With an appreciation for pithy quotations, telling details and amusing gossip, she’s quick to spot a fascinating aside ... Like the murderer, Harman goes for the jugular in her account of the investigation, trial and aftermath. Unfortunately — and somewhat frustratingly — she is unable to stanch the flow of unsolved mysteries surrounding the case ... As riveting as this true-crime story is, what elevates Murder by the Book above sensationalism is its focus on how this case heightened concern over the malevolent influence of violent entertainment.
Claire Harman doesn’t claim to have unearthed an unknown Victorian murder mystery (she includes an extensive bibliography). And since the case was quickly solved and put to bed, her narrative lacks the twists and turns of Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. But she tells the story with clarity and vigour, and her postscript explores a number of unanswered questions.
... wry, sharp ... Harman fails to connect the public furor around the Courvoisier case to the recurring question of whether violence in literature or onscreen poses a threat — and what our persistent worries that it does mean for how we understand influence, morality and fiction ... Harman doesn't bother connecting the Courvoisier case with the larger history of [the question, can art change behavior in dangerous ways?]. Her touch is so light and her voice is so wry you almost feel she is too tasteful to try for anything as crass or explicit as relevance. But Murder By The Book would be more interesting if she looked at how that question has recurred with amazing regularity throughout history, and how it so often suggests a belief in the essential malleability of some group of people...
... Ms. Harman is a tireless researcher and a droll stylist. Those same gifts are in evidence here ... Given its juicy subject and accomplished author, Murder by the Book should be a knockout read; instead, it’s just okay, one of those works of nonfiction whose particulars quickly fade away. Regrettably, Ms. Harman’s own investigations here proceed all too effortfully 'by the book' to be revelatory ... Lord William defies Ms. Harman’s best efforts to flesh him out, existing on the page as a human doppelgänger of a Clue game piece ... Reading is always a potentially risky activity, even if, as in Murder by the Book, all that readers must hazard is a few hours of gentle boredom.
... thoroughly engrossing ... Harman’s exploration of Dickens’ interest in the case, reaction to the book Jack Sheppard, and horrified account of the hanging, which he witnessed, add depth to this assiduously researched and splendidly written book. In the end she reminds us that truth is often stranger than fiction, particularly when inspired by it. Indeed!
... an intriguing, entertaining and occasionally gruesome mashup of mystery, biography, history and literary intrigue ... A fascinating, exhaustively researched exploration into how art can influence society and vice versa, Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens’s London turns an unflinching eye to the ways in which biases born of economic inequality affect the way crimes are investigated and prosecuted. It’s a true crime devotee’s delight.