(John) Rayner Heppenstall Richard Whittington-Egan - Essay

Richard Whittington-Egan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Heppenstall, the lately arrived criminal historian of murder à la môde Française, [reminds us in Bluebeard and After] that while we may have our Jacques l'Eventreur, our Crippens, Seddons, Heaths, Haighs and Christies, in the words of Sterne, 'They order … this matter better in France.' Or if not, strictly, better, at least statistically they are our superiors, being on average rather more than twice as murderous as ourselves.

Taking Landru as a kind of sinister marker, Mr Heppenstall proceeds to range about him the grand assassins of three decades—the twenties, thirties and forties….

The account of the misdeeds of all these anti-heroes is set against the march of political, social and cultural events within France, and contrasted with coeval criminalities in other countries. This treatment, while providing a most effective panoramic view of the chronologically unfolding record, does have the intrinsic disadvantage of making for very dense reading, and the result is not one of those books which can be picked up and put down. It requires sustained and concentrated effort on the part of the reader. But the effort is worth making, for there is certainly no better account available of the art and artifice of the practice of murder in the fair land of our new common market partners. (p. 103)

Richard Whittington-Egan, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Richard Whittington-Egan, 1972; reprinted with permission), May, 1972.