Early in the morning of 6 May 1840, on an ultra-respectable Mayfair street, a footman answered the door to a panic-stricken maid from a nearby house. Her elderly master, Lord William Russell, was lying in bed with his throat cut. The whole of London, from monarch to street urchins, was gripped by the gory details of the Russell murder, but behind it was another story, a work of fiction, and a fierce debate about censorship and morality. When Lord William’s murderer claimed to have been inspired by the season’s most sensational novel, it seemed a great deal more was on trial than anyone could have guessed.

In her newest book, acclaimed biographer Claire Harman delves into one of Victorian London’s most sensational crimes, one which caused Queen Victoria to write in her diary, ‘This is really too horrid’.

I admit I became a bit lost in the first couple of chapters as Harman throws so many different names into the mix that it became impossible to keep track of them all. Fortunately, it’s not necessary for the reader to do so – most of those people aren’t key to the story – but there is a cast list in the back should you need it.

Lord William Russell’s murder sparked panic among the upper classes of Victorian society. The elderly man – found in bed with his throat cut so deeply his head was almost severed – was wealthy and respected. The suspects for the murder were generally confined to the members of his own household. Suddenly, the rich began to look askance at their servants; who was to say that their quiet housemaid or polite valet didn’t harbour a secret grudge against them?

As well as exploring a fascinating murder and the trial that followed, Harman also explores the power of popular stories on the public imagination. The person arrested for the murder claimed to be inspired by one of the most popular novels of the day, Jack Sheppard by William Harrison Ainsworth. The book was an example of the increasingly popular genre of Newgate novels, which were accused of glamorising violence and the criminal lifestyle.

Harman also examines the beginning of the end of the death penalty. An estimated 40,000 people came to watch the murderer hang, including authors Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. Both were disgusted by the spectacle and subsequently wrote of their abhorrence of the death penalty, helping to turn people’s opinions against public executions.

The final chapter, in which Harman posits a few different theories about what really happened on the night of the murder, was particularly interesting. The reader feels a part of the investigation and is left to do their own detective work to make up their minds about what really happened.

Harman has used Lord William’s shocking murder as a jumping-off point to discuss various fascinating points about Victorian society, from the people’s love of renegade criminals to the first suggestion of looking for fingerprints to help solve crimes. Its short length (just 170 pages) means it moves along at a quick pace and will keep you gripped until the final word.

Many thanks to Penguin for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.