The Trial of Elizabeth Cree Essay - Critical Essays

Peter Ackroyd

The Trial of Elizabeth Cree

In the autumn of 1880, a series of brutal murders shock Victorian London: a prostitute, a Jewish scholar, an entire family struck down—the first in odd anticipation of Jack the Ripper later the same decade, the last in a manner eerily similar to (and in the very same house as) the Ratcliffe Highway Murders committed in 1811 and immortalized in Thomas De Quincey’s essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” Among those questioned in relation to the Limehouse Murders are Karl Marx, George Gissing, and Dan Leno, but not another, more purely fictional frequenter of the British Library’s Main Reading Room, John Cree, a man of considerable wealth and literary ambition but little talent, except, perhaps, for murder. When Cree dies, his wife, Elizabeth, the orphan turned music-hall actress turned gentleman’s wife, is tried, found guilty, and hanged. Whether she did in fact (in Ackroyd’s fiction) poison him and whether she was herself (dressed as her husband) the serial killer known only as the Limehouse Golem are questions the novel leaves teasingly unanswered.

THE TRIAL OF ELIZABETH CREE is a learned and literary but also tricky and wonderfully theatrical performance by one of England’s most gifted, intelligent, and entertaining fiction writers. The novel re-creates Victorian London in a vivid (although often foggy) and utterly convincing manner, but from a decidedly postmodern perspective. It is less a costume drama or historical...

(The entire section is 427 words.)