Victorian railway murder inspires gripping first novel

MR. BRIGGS’ HAT
BY KATE COLQUHOUN
Little Brown, £16.99

by Lucie Greene

Mr Briggs’ Hat, the debut novel by award-winning historian Kate Colquhoun, is a current hot pick of the literary press. And it’s easy to see why. This is a rip-roaring tale of murder and intrigue set in 1864.

The story – based on real life events – centres on a mysterious murder which takes place in the first class carriage of a North London train. Two bank clerks discover a hat in first-class on top of a pool of blood from murder victim Thomas Briggs, a senior bank clerk, who is later found dying on the railway tracks. What ensues is a nationwide manhunt for the killer and news sensation, culminating in the trial of suspect German tailor Franz Muller.

Colquhoun deftly explores the impact of the murder on the Victorian psyche at a time when society was relishing the wonders of the industrial age and railway expansion, but equally becoming more paranoid about the evils of urban society. It also highlights the growth of newspapers of the era – 1864 was considered a golden age for British press – and how this impacted the drama of the investigation’s coverage and trial of Muller, who was eventually hanged despite doubts over evidence. (As far back as Victorian times, it becomes clear, we Brits were keen on a good yarn, even if it did blind our judgement from the truth.)

The book has inevitably been compared with Kate Summerscale’s 2008 bestseller, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, and it’s true there are many overlaps. But don’t let that distract you. This is a gripping, beautifully written read.

MADE IN BRITAIN: HOW THE NATION EARNS ITS LIVING
BY EVAN DAVIS
Little Brown, £18.99

by Philip Salter

Made in Britain is the second book by the prolific economist and journalist Evan Davis, which will accompany a BBC series of the same name. For fans that listen to him dissect the countless erroneous economic arguments presented by guests on the Today Programme, this work will hit the spot. His upbeat, balanced and effortless interviewing style translates well into prose and it is filled with interesting facts that can slip through the noise of information – such as the fact that German automotive production only accounts for 3 to 4 per cent of its economy.

A central aim of the book is a noble one especially given the bias of the UK press: to stop people trying to assess the value of what they do by looking at physical production alone. His contention is: “It’s not the weight or size of an object that makes it valuable and, more than most other advanced economies, Britain has found ways of earning a living that are beyond manufacturing.”

A position that won’t surprise listeners of The Bottom Line, his absorbing Radio 4 discussion programme with business leaders and entrepreneurs.

Books accompanying television series often fall short against standalone books. Made in Britain is an exception. Davis resists coming down on either side of the left-right wing debates he presents (which may frustrate some) but it’s an engaging book written by an author whose passion and command of his subject shine through.

EVERYONE LOVES YOU WHEN YOU’RE DEAD (AND OTHER THINGS I LEARNED FROM FAMOUS PEOPLE)
BY NEIL STRAUSS
Portfolio, £20

by Lucie Greene

As a senior writer for Rolling Stone, journalist Neil Strauss has witnessed some incredible moments in pop culture history. Here, in Everyone Loves you When You’re dead (And other Things I learned from Famous People) he revisits key interviews with icons, presenting them in new form as mini episodes.

Strauss says he has conducted over 3,000 interviews since the age of 18, including Lady Gaga, Tom Cruise, Chuck Berry and David Bowie. Of these, meetings with Hugh Hefner; travelling with Madonna by helicopter; Gaga crying over ex-boyfriends; and being locked in an apartment with Courtney Love are featured. Each encounter is posited as a moment that is most illustrative about the celebrity.

Strauss is somewhat of a celebrity himself these days and has been tapped by many celebrities to ghost write autobiographies in the past. (Not least Jenna Jamesons’ How to Make Money like a Porn Star.) He’s also well known for penning the bestseller The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. This new book is an entertaining read and gives excellent insight in to the strange world of celebrities. The only problem with its snippet-style format is that it can sometimes feels disjointed.