The Postcard Murder: A Judge’s Tales by Paul Worsley QC
This is a vintage whodunit set in Edwardian London at a crossroads in time, as social revolution and psychiatry posed new questions for the Law and for the first time the Media were co-opted to run a killer to ground.
The year is 1907: 22-year-old Emily Dimmock lies murdered in her Camden Town flat, her head all but severed from her body. With not a thread or stain or fingerprint to point to the perpetrator, a young artist is manoeuvred into the shadow of the scaffold.
The tale is told verbatim by witnesses presided over by the author, who draws on his own experience as a Judge at the Old Bailey to get inside the mind of the outspoken but irresolute Mr Justice Grantham. The result is as compelling today as it is definitive of the era in which the murder was committed.
The book is illustrated with two maps and 27 photographs, 10 of which are in full colour.
Guest Post by Paul Worsley QC:
Having sat as a Judge at the Old Bailey for over ten years I am used to preparing written trial documents, ruling on submissions to admit or exclude evidence. Likewise the Summing Up to the jury requires careful preparation. The jury needs to be told the Law – which they must accept from the Judge. But then a summary of the factual issues and a reminder of salient pieces of evidence in a coherent and chronological manner is required. Thus as a Judge over the years I have gathered some experience of writing a document called ‘the Summing Up’ for the jury. Often they receive part of the summing up in written form to help them when they retire to consider their verdict.
As a Judge in retirement one is freed from the pressures that each case brings. But there is a sense of missing the courtroom, the ushers, clerks and colleagues, the taking of a verdict and then perhaps deciding upon the fate of a convicted killer. So it seemed to me to be a natural step in retirement to turn to writing about True Crime. It has long held a fascination and indeed it was probably those old cases where miscarriages of justice had occurred that enticed me into a murky world of motives and murders. Writing about a case, against the background of the law as the framework, seemed not unsurmountable. Then mastering the evidence and the rival arguments came next. It seemed natural to approach the case from the point of view of the Judge. Only when I started researching the case of Robert Wood did I realise that this was a novel approach not adopted before by other writers. By reading in the transcripts of the Judge’s rulings, observations and Summing Up it was not too difficult to get into the mind of an old-fashioned, blunt, reactionary Judge. Then using my experience of how witnesses give evidence, how the public gallery can react and how counsel go about their task made the story come alive. The Prosecution’s task is to seek to make a jury sure of guilt. The Defence seek to raise doubts. The case then unfolds against the backdrop of the scaffold, whose shadow hung heavy over any trial for murder in the early 20th century.
To set about the task in earnest it was necessary to read round the case. Several books have been written about the trial or it has figured as a chapter in books about the Old Bailey or defence advocate Marshall Hall. Then to the National Archives at Kew to read the actual transcript of the evidence taken down as it was given in 1907. Then a decision as to how to present the evidence. Chronologically? Witness by witness? Subject by subject? Issue by issue? How to prune the days of evidence and speeches into something readable?
How to capture the sense of the moment and the atmosphere of the courtroom? I turned to the newspaper cuttings of the trial. Most helpful in this respect were the scrapbooks of cuttings which Marshall Hall KC kept of all his cases. There were reports from different daily newspapers of the same case and the same detailed proceedings. It must have been a monumental task to gather each daily paper and find the report on the case, then cut it out and place in a scrap book. It says perhaps something about the ego or even feeling of insecurity of the collector, wanting to see his name in newsprint and his successes emblazoned in the headlines.
Then how to approach the retelling of the tale? I decided to adopt an old device of narrating it to a third party, in this case the Judge’s son who questions at different stages the old Judge’s preconceptions. How to make it a page turner by not simply accepting the verdict but coming up with a solution that fitted the evidence and showed that the jury got it wrong.
Then perhaps a Postscript to suggest how the case might have been tried in the 21st century with the powerful tools now at the disposal of investigators and lawyers. Would the verdict have been the same if Wood was tried today, with the evidential aids of CCTV and DNA to help the investigators? Finally letting the reader sit as a 13th juror and decide what the verdict would have been had they themselves tried the case of Robert Wood for the Postcard Murder.
Paul Worsley QC retired in 2017 as a Senior Circuit Judge at the Old Bailey and lives in North Yorkshire. His career, which spans over forty-five years in the Criminal Law, began in 1970 after reading Law at Oxford University. He first practised at the Bar from Chambers in Leeds, contesting many murder cases, often characterised by the rural area in which the crimes took place and the people who inhabit the vast wilderness of the North York Moors and Wolds to the south. In his first case in 1982, he secured the liberty of a farmer’s son who shot dead both his parents: they had treated him as a slave and made him sleep in the dog kennel. Six years later, he appeared for Yvonne Sleightholme, who famously went blind after being arrested for shooting dead her ‘love rival’ in a remote Yorkshire farmyard. Later, he successfully prosecuted ‘Wearside Jack’ (John Samuel Humble), who derailed the Yorkshire Ripper Investigation after sending hoax letters to the investigating officer (thence to the press), claiming to be the Ripper, In retirement, Paul is outspoken about the death penalty and trial without jury, and draws interesting parallels between the postcard murder case and today’s legal controversies. The 1907 case was the first in which the media was co-opted to run a killer to ground. Today, TV’s Crimewatch does that all the time to great effect. But there have been cases (Wearside Jack and the Cliff Richard ‘production’, for example) where collaboration between police and media did not serve justice so well. Then there is the question as to how far the law should reflect public opinion, as topical today. The influence of public opinion on Mr Justice Grantham in the postcard murder case had disastrous consequences, causing him to change his mind part way through his summing-up (an event without precedent). As a result, the jury discharged a guilty man. The case suggests that in every era public opinion has its blind spots and what we need is absolute judgement in Law. Is it not the job of judges to apply the Law and not decide what it should be? The author is a practised speaker and is available to roll out a series of talks at public forums, including law colleges and university faculties, and wherever his new book might take him.
Thank you Midas PR for the review copy of The Postcard Murder: A Judge’s Tale by Paul Worsley QC.
The Postcard Murder: A Judge’s Tale by Paul Worsley QC was published by Pilot Productions and was published on 14th November 2019 and is available to pre-order through Waterstones, Amazon and through your local independent bookshop.