Review - THE PECULIAR CASE OF THE ELECTRIC CONSTABLE, Carol Baxter

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The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable
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9781780742434
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Book Synopsis

John Tawell was a sincere Quaker but a sinning one. Convicted of forgery, he was transported to Sydney, where he opened Australia’s first retail pharmacy and made a fortune. When he returned home to England after fifteen years, he thought he would be welcomed; instead he was shunned.

Then on New Year’s Day 1845 Tawell boarded the 7:42 pm train to London Paddington. Soon, men arrived chasing a suspected murderer – but the 7:42 had departed. The Great Western Railway was experimenting with a new-fangled device, the electric telegraph, so a message was sent: a ‘KWAKER’ man was on the run. The trail became a sensation, involving no apparent weapon, much innuendo, and a pious man desperate to save his reputation – and would usher in the modern communication age.

Told with narrative verve and rich in historical research, this is a delicious true tale of murder and scientific revolution in Victorian England.

Book Review

When you don't read blurbs, or avoid coverage of a book that you know you're going to read eventually, some things can come as a considerable surprise. Things like THE PECULIAR CASE OF THE ELECTRIC CONSTABLE being a true story.

The starting premise of the book is the speedy identification and capture of an alleged murderer by an early electric telegraph. If you think, however, that this is the whole point of the story, then you are going to be disappointed. Whilst there is background to the scepticism of the system's worth and the difficulties in getting an installation up and running, the telegraph's usefulness in this particular case, is done and dusted very quickly as the story becomes all about John Tawell and his assumed guilt in the murder of a young woman.

Not that the alternative focus is necessarily a major disappointment as John Tawell is a fascinating character. A supposedly pious and sincere Quaker he's been a surprisingly naughty boy. He's also gifted with a major talent for refusing to acknowledge his part in his own downfall. Long after he's ejected from the Quaker church he's still trying to buy, bribe and cajole his way back. He's still walking around dressed as a Quaker, still participating as much as he can in the community. You can almost hear the Quaker elder's teeth grinding as Tawell simply will not go away.

Whilst the known facts of Tawell's life, his crime(s) and his subsequent trial for murder are built into the story, this reads like a ripsnorter of a yarn. The pace clips along, and the actions of Tawell are beautifully described, as are the reactions of everyone around him. The author appears to be in as much doubt as to WHY as anybody else is by the end of the story (although which "why" ... well that would be telling). That seems to be absolutely fair - allowing the reader to question, consider and resolve in their own minds if they are of a mind to do so.

As unexpected as THE PECULIAR CASE OF THE ELECTRIC CONSTABLE was, and as unlikely as the scenario may seem, even allowing for the slightly misleading title of the book itself, this was a very interesting, engaging book and as silly as this sounds, a tall tale but true.

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