Monday, 8 September 2014

Penguin no. 585: Rex v. Anne Bickerton
by Sydney Fowler

Well, he must make the best of the facts as he had to face them. He must decide which of the two women was the murderer before to-morrow was over, and after that there must be no looking back. Guilty or innocent, she had got to hang. But the thought did not perturb him. He had too great a confidence in his own ability.

"If you take at random half a dozen of the most famous murder trials of recent years, and read the evidence carefully, you'll probably find that not more than two were really proved—not to the degree of proof which would satisfy a bank or an insurance company in a business deal."

Sydney Fowler was clearly no supporter of the death penalty for those convicted of committing murder, and it would seem that he had many reservations about the process in use in 1930 to deliver people to that end.

He tells, in Rex v. Anne Bickerton, a story of three ordinary people who inadvertently find themselves involved in an unexpected death which appears to have been brought about by an intentional act: they face together the ordeal of having the case examined by the coroner, and then Anne Bickerton, as noted in the title, faces the subsequent ordeal of a murder trial on her own. He uses their story to canvass the many flaws he identifies in the process, flaws which are often underpinned by an incompatibility between the personal priorities of those who work within the system and its overarching intention.

He also focuses on the imperfectness of a process which makes no allowance for the uncertainty about what is known and what is not: when the facts seem incompatible with any feasible explanation of the crime, it is assumed without question that one of the suspects must be lying or keeping something hidden. But these witnesses are perfectly frank, at least about the things that matter (and where they are not, it is only to protect themselves from the avaricious inclinations of the lawyers); the problem stems from something else, perhaps a lack of imagination, or a conceit about infallibility.

Anne Bickerton is the only one who feels any sympathy for Arabella Hackett when she complains of feeling ill. James Hackett, in company with the doctors, has learnt to ignore his wife's all-too-frequent complaints: he has only to mention that he must travel for business for her to begin to feel poorly, and a telegram invariably reaches his destination, soon after he arrives, summoning him home as she is always sure the illness has taken a serious turn and her life is in danger. After so many false alarms, doctors and relatives alike are taken by surprise when Belle does become seriously ill, and shortly after dies.

Her death turns out to have been due to the ingestion of arsenic, and of an amount many multiples of the fatal dose. In this case neither the source of the poison, nor its means of delivery, is a mystery - the arsenic had been purchased by James Hackett at the request of their employee Rose Dorling who had used it to poison weeds invading the garden paths, and the contaminated dregs of a cup of tea, made and delivered by Anne Bickerton, confirmed it to be the source. But as Rose and Anne are barely on speaking terms, there can be no question of them having colluded in the murder, and so the authorities must decide which of them is to be pursued as the guilty party. James Hackett's failure to respond to the telegram summons has him suspected of involvement as well.

All of those involved in the delivery of justice are portrayed as diligent and hard-working, with the police and the lawyers, and the coroner and the judiciary all intent on fulfilling the obligations of their respective positions as they perceive them, but the problem is in that perception. The police, for example, are intent on delivering a culprit into the dock to stand trial, and the judge is determined to secure the conviction of anyone who should find themselves there, but they proceed on the assumption that an unerring process has delivered the guilty person into that chair. With the lawyers, it is more about doing the best by their reputations and by their finances, and so their focus is always on winning, even if that means an innocent person will end up being hanged or a guilty one allowed to go free. Everyone is concerned with securing a particular favourable outcome, but no one is concerned with finding out the truth.

But Sydney Fowler does provide one character who behaves decently irrespective of the cost, although she perhaps behaves a little too selflessly to be believable. Rose Dorling refuses to heed her lawyer's advice and stares down the judge and a policeman despite their threats of legal sanctions. As one of the suspects, it would be to her advantage for Anne Bickerton to be found guilty, but as she does not believe her to be guilty, she refuses to sit by and allow her to be found so. Rose's determination to find the truth is clearly offered as a standard by which the behaviour of the others can be judged.

This is a story conditioned on the point being made, and the characters are all clearly exaggerated to this end, but it was this exaggeration that made it so entertaining: the lawyers are avaricious, the judge is biased, the foreman of the jury cares only about pursuing a private grievance, and the investigating policeman doesn't care who is hanged as long as someone is; the story seemed almost subversive.

First published May 1930. Published in Penguin Books 1947.


  1. I got hold of a couple of books by Sydney Fowler years ago, and read and enjoyed them - he is pretty much forgotten now, which I think is a shame.

  2. Sydney Fowler was a pen name for the science fiction author S. Fowler Wright. I think you are right when you say that his mysteries are not much read, but he has an enduring if modest reputation for his science fiction, much of which is first rate. The reputations of science fiction authors tend to outlast those of mystery authors in the long run.



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