The Trial of Elizabeth Cree

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 427

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)...

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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 novel than a pastiche in late nineteenth century drag. Drawing on the “tub of blood” conventions in the cheap theaters of the times, Ackroyd shuttles back and forth between London’s East End and staid Bloomsbury, between music-hall stage and British Library Reading Room, fact and fiction, history and histrionics, as he explores “a network of curious associations” linking the novel’s several characters, stories, and styles. The result is utterly absorbing and playfully contrived, horrific and hilarious, a master magician’s bag of tricks in the form of one shocking, or rather “shocking,” revelation, or sensation, after another, leading up to a show-stopping grand finale.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, May 1, 1995, p. 1550.

Boston Globe. June 4, 1995, p. 77.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 25, 1995, p. 12.

Necrofile. IX, Summer, 1995, p. 5.

New Statesman and Society. VII, September 9, 1994, p. 39.

The New York Review of Books. XLII, September 21, 1995, p. 49.

The New York Times Book Review. C, April 16, 1995, p. 7.

The New Yorker. LXXI, August 21, 1995, p. 129.

The Observer. September 11, 1994, p. 20.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, April 3, 1995, p. 44.

San Francisco Chronicle. May 21, 1995, p. REV3.

The Spectator. CCLXXIII, September 10, 1994, p. 33.

Time. CXLV, May 29, 1995, p. 72.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 9, 1994, p. 21.

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