cover image The Trial of Elizabeth Cree

The Trial of Elizabeth Cree

Peter Ackroyd. Nan A. Talese, $22 (261pp) ISBN 978-0-385-47707-9

The latest from Ackroyd (English Music) is a deft, if somewhat cerebral and cold-blooded, exercise in historical crime fiction set in a late-Victorian London teeming with intellectual activity, extreme poverty and all manner of sensational public spectacles. A blend of trial transcripts, first-person accounts and microscopic biographical studies of illustrious 19th-century lives, the story is an impressive feat of historical fidelity and fictional artistry. In a marvelous coda, Ackroyd even unites his protagonists in the audience of a theater, to watch a play based on the gruesome events of the novel. The story opens with the trial and execution of former music-hall actress Elizabeth Cree, convicted of poisoning her husband, John Cree, whose diary entries suggest that he is the ``Limehouse Golem,'' a serial killer stalking the squalid, smog-choked streets of London's Jewish district. Around these grisly deeds weave the intersecting paths of Ackroyd's nonfictional characters, including George Gissing, Karl Marx and popular theater star Dan Leno, who haunt the Reading Room of the British Museum and the chiarascuro streets of the city. The Golem's identity, in a not unexpected plot twist, is ultimately found among the protean personae of the theater world. Yet Ackroyd reminds us at every turn that his fictional whodunit enfolds a larger, unsolvable mystery, a mystery of London itself, and of the solace that its populace finds in popular spectacles of sensational crime and violence. (May)