The mousy-looking Hawley Harvey Crippen seems to have been something of a bore, aside from that one little incident in which he murdered his wife, dismembered her, and entombed her in the basement. This is the sort of contradiction that invites psychological speculation, fictional or otherwise. John Boyne's Crippen (2004) sets much of the novel after the crime, on a ship populated by a Gilligan's Island-assortment of miscellaneous and aggravating comic types, but frequently flashes back to Crippen's pre-murder life of mediocrity. (There is also a massive plot twist that may cause sprained eyebrows amongst Boyne's audience.) This is not a novel out to make you love any of its characters, let alone feel some passing affection for them: aside from a couple of reasonably sympathetic minor figures (one of whom crops up again in Boyne's The Thief of Time, where he turns out to be immortal...), the cast consists of snobbish women, would-be rapists, domestic abusers, sex-starved young ladies, gold-digging mammas, thick-skulled detectives, and the occasional murderer. Subtlety is not, perhaps, this novel's strong suit.
Near the end, the aforementioned immortal, Matthieu Zela, advises Crippen that "society's opinion of you is as nothing compared to your own self-respect. When you do get to Canada, I urge you to be yourselves" (283). This rather banal advice sums up the novel's indictment of late-Victorian and Edwardian Anglo-American culture, given the amount of time the main characters spend not being themselves. Dr. Crippen, renamed "John Robinson" during his attempted escape to Canada, is, of course, not a doctor at all, although he has fantasized it so intensely that "he could even remember scenes" from his graduation (206). His national and international mobility is in part about remaking himself--although even more about remaking his wife, the horrendous Cora Crippen, a would-be musical hall singer with many names, a "masculine" body, and the habit of beating up her much smaller husband. Crippen's lover Ethel spends a good chunk of the novel cross-dressing as Crippen's "son," Edmund, and ends the novel ready to remake her life again in America, while the high-society Louise Smythson is actually a hopped-up barmaid married to an aristocratic younger son. (By the end of the novel, Louise's fantasies about the elder brother conveniently dying off have undergone the not-particularly-wholesome transition to fantasies about her somewhat scatterbrained husband dying off.) Characters who are not actively playing roles often turn out to be desperately lacking in self-awareness, whether it be the odious and upper-crust Mrs. Drake, a stereotypically xenophobic snob, or the martinet Captain Kendall, a fanboy of Captain Bligh (!) who seems to be deeply in the closet--to himself--about his relationship with his much-loved first officer, Mr. Sorenson. Under the circumstances, the transformation of the Crippen case into popular entertainment, complete with young ladies cooing over the investigator, Inspector Dew, makes considerable sense: in a society devoted to surfaces and populated by performers, it seems perfectly logical to treat the Crippen case as yet one more show.
Unfortunately, the novel's frequent resort to one-dimensional stereotypes (from the get-off-my-lawnishness of Dew and Kendall to the revelation that Crippen is an earlier incarnation of Phoebus Farb) is accompanied by something even deadlier than the murder: consistently affectless and cliche-ridden prose. The novel's peculiar flatness derives from its insistence on making even the most banal feelings painfully explicit. Characters reflect on how "appearances [...] were the most deceptive of all human traits" (149), discover that they are "no longer master in his own home" (168), are "pleased to have the man on his side" (180), assure themselves that "[w]hen he had told Police Constable Milburn that the case was closed, he had meant it" (218), are "loving every moment of the publicity which was being heaped on her," and so on, and so forth. Every passing sentiment of contempt, self-indulgence, passion, or indigestion winds up verbalized for the reader--right alongside even the dullest of thoughts--with the paradoxical effect of emptying them all of substance. There's no narrative shading or proportion. Surely the reader should be able to figure out that Louise Smythson gets a kick out of exposing Crippen without the novelist injecting stage directions? Surely the purportedly sophisticated Matthieu Zela ought to be capable of more profound reflections than, in effect, "appearances are deceiving"? I did my best to justify the novel's unchangingly flat style by reminding myself that Crippen himself is supposed to be dull...except that this excuse would only work if the novel resorted to this strategy when Crippen was acting as viewpoint character. I expected a novel about one of the twentieth century's most sensational cases to have a little more in the way of stylistic vim.