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Peter Ackroyd: Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (US: The Trial of Elizabeth Cree)

I suppose they changed the name in the US to avoid confusion with the talk-show host, Jay Leno. This is another of Ackroyd’s histori-biographical novels. The real characters in this one are the eponymous Dan Leno, an English music hall star, George Gissing, the still under-estimated English realist writer, Karl Marx and even the family of Charlie Chaplin. The star of the story, however, is Elizabeth Cree. An abused child, she turns to prostitution for a living. However, she is discovered by Dan Leno and becomes a music hall star and marries the reporter, John Cree. The novel, however, opens with her hanging – for having poisoned her husband. The case has been investigated by Inspector Kildare and he is not the supersleuth of BBC mysteries but rather a bumbling incompetent. The Limehouse Murders of the 1880s are also a key part of this story. These were pre-Jack the Ripper slasher murders, blamed on the Limehouse Golem. Ackroyd does not spare us details of these murders. Ironically enough, Elizabeth Cree is probably the only person, apart from the murderer, who knows who the Limehouse Golem really is.

What Ackroyd does well, as he has done in books, is to evoke the London of the past, the Victorian squalor and poverty, the prostitution, the back streets of the East End. He has also avoided the traditional whodunnit by not having a supersleuth through whose eyes we see all the action but rather having a shifting viewpoint – the transcription of the trial, John Cree’s diary, police records. Ackroyd’s strength is biography and the historical characters only add to the atmosphere of verisimilitude Ackroyd is trying to create. Maybe not his best but far better than many a Victorian mystery you will read.

Publishing history

First published 1987 by Hamish Hamilton