Michael Knox Beran is the author of the new book Murder by Candlelight, which looks at notorious crimes of the Romantic Era. His other books include Forge of Empires and The Last Patrician. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and National Review. He lives in Westchester County, New York.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book?
A: I came across a reference, in a book I was reading, to Thurtell’s murder of Weare. I looked the case up and couldn’t stop thinking about it. Thurtell’s crime led me to other notorious murders. The book followed.
Q: How do you define the “classic” English murder, and what about the 1811-1837 time period lent itself to that definition?
A: George Orwell argued that the classic period in English murder began in the middle of the 19th century and ended around the time of the First World War.
He had in mind the great poisoning cases, arsenic and antimony, Dr. Pritchard and Dr. Palmer, that sort of thing. Those are indeed fascinating cases, but as the victim was often not aware that he or she was being murdered, they do not, I think, fill up the cup of horror.
The crimes of my period are a good deal bloodier; they have something in common with the horror of the old Elizabethan and Jacobean plays which the Romantic poets of the early 19th century were rediscovering.
Q: How did the writers of the Romantic period affect perceptions about these crimes?
A: They were less interested than we are in the whodunit aspects of particular crimes or in their social causes. The writer De Quincey, who figures largely in my book, was a forerunner of Dostoevsky: both men studied crime in order to come to terms with the mystery of human evil.
Q: What surprised you most in the course of your research for this book?
A: I was surprised by how impressive the English criminal justice system was at the time, how minutely the police investigated the crimes, and how thorough the counsel for the Crown were in their presentation of the evidence at trial.
Although the trials do not come up to today’s standards in forensic and medical science, a great deal of care was taken to prove that the accused were indeed guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Rex v. Thurtell and Rex v. Greenacre were very much not Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: When I was researching an earlier book, Forge of Empires 1861-1871, I came across the story of an Austrian princess who, going against the grain of her time and class, fell in love with a Jewish poet. I hope it will make an interesting book.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb