Blood on the Page: A Murder, a Secret Trial, a Search for the Truth

Thomas Harding

£20, William Heinemann

The real test of the quality of a detective story is the calibre of the background setting. A line or two of a Sherlock Holmes story and you are in Baker Street and the foggy Victorian capital. That is why these stories are read again and again. Other books are simply whodunnits or locked-room mysteries which are engaging purely in the search for the solution.

This book is a true crime story. The description of the background to a violent murder in an upmarket north London suburb in 2006 is vivid and dramatic. The man arrested for the killing has always protested his innocence and he is still in prison. There are several different threads to the tale: the life story of the 86-year-old reclusive victim; the youth and early life of the accused man in communist China; and the scene of the crime in Hampstead. Each part of that story would make an interesting book in itself. The victim was a published writer and expert on George Bernard Shaw, an interest which took him across the world. He had a lifelong fascination for the playwright but his career as a biographer was not wholly successful. The alleged killer’s life in China and travel to this country could hardly be more different. The detailed account of his early life is equally intriguing.

These stories are interwoven with an account of the police investigation and the writer’s research into the topic. The book is worth reading for the analysis of a modern murder investigation. This included the initial response, the search through piles of rubbish in a near derelict house, the forensic examination, the work of entomologists and other scientific investigation. All of this is of interest to any criminal practitioner.

What is unique about the trial is that parts were held in secret. Not only were journalists excluded, they were prevented from speculating why. This makes the book difficult to write and to review. That aside, it is the fine details that make the book so compelling. I was intrigued by an aside, which has nothing to do with this story, that prisoners were invited to a comedy workshop in prison, which was later cancelled. I wonder why?

The research behind this book reveals incredible detail of the lives of those involved. It is amazing how so many contributed to the book in different ways. It moves at a good pace and, although the subject matter is challenging, it is never anything other than a fascinating and gripping tale. Written by an experienced journalist and documentary maker, as a true crime book it is superior in every way to many similar books.

David Pickup is a partner at Aylesbury-based Pickup & Scott.