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The Irish Assassins

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Inspired by the discovery of notebooks belonging to her late father, in The Irish Assassins: Conspiracy, Revenge, and the Phoenix Park Murders That Stunned Victorian England (Grove Press, 2021), Julie Kavanagh digs deeper into the historical record to fully reveal the brutal slaying of Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Burke in Dublin’s Phoenix Park by Irish radicals in May 1882. Long before the unrest and violence of “The Troubles,” a term which has come to characterize Irish history and politics in the twenty-first century, late-Victorian Ireland, then entirely under British control, boiled with dissatisfaction and an anger that was constantly on the cusp of turning ugly. The subjugation of the Irish by Great Britain had long been a rallying cry among nationalists both in Ireland and among the immigrant communities that had immerged all over the globe, largely in consequence to a mass exodus of Irish in the famine years of the 1840s. Kavanagh opens her work in the latter half of the Victorian era with Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell heavily involved in the fight for Home Rule in Ireland through his establishment of the Land League, which sought to abolish landlordism and allow tenant farmers to own the land they worked on. A landlord himself, having been born into the protestant Anglo-Irish aristocracy, Parnell became the face of the political agitation known as the Land Wars. He subsequently organized the needed financial and political support among various nationalist groups both in Ireland and abroad who sought political reform that would benefit the nation. 

	When Queen Victoria’s favourite Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, the Earl of Beaconsfield was forced to step down in favour of the Liberal politician William Ewart Gladstone, the new administration began in earnest the slow process of making Home Rule a reality. Serving in the post of Chief Secretary for Ireland in Gladstone’s government was William Edward Forster, who, given the role he played in the events that led up to the Phoenix Park murders, is a prominent character in the first half of Kavanagh’s work. In October 1881 Forster had Parnell arrested and the Land League suppressed and from then on, having enraged the Irish nationalists, became a target for assassination himself.  As Kavanagh relates, Forester avoided several attempts on his life by sheer luck before he ultimately resigned from his post in May 1882. To fill the vacant position, Gladstone named Lord Frederick Cavendish, son of the 7th Duke of Devonshire and husband of his niece the Hon. Lucy Lyttleton, to the position. Resident in Ireland for less than 24 hours, Cavendish, along with the Permanent Under Secretary at the Irish Office, Thomas Burke, was brutally stabbed to death by several men belonging to the extreme radical Irish nationalist group the Irish National Invincibles. Burke had been the intended target of the Invincibles, but Cavendish was murdered as well simply because he was in the other man’s company.

	With politics threaded throughout, Kavanaghs makes a distinct shift following the Phoenix Park killings and uses the remaining second half of the work to detail the aftermath of the crime that reverberated around the world. Dubbed the Phoenix Park Conspiracy by some, the author explains how the following few months unfolded as the perpetrators of the crime being hunted down and subsequently brought to justice. Kavanagh does the with the attention and skill of an accomplished writer and historian, but in fact has a further sensational story of assassination to impart to the reader. One of the Invincibles involved in the Phoenix Park killings, James Carey, turned Queen’s evidence after being apprehended and gave evidence against his fellow conspirators to save himself from punishment. Now seen as a traitor, Kavanagh brings this riveting book to a close by chronicling Carey’s escape to South Africa under an assumed name given to him by the British government and his own assassination by Patrick O’Donnell as revenge for his disloyalty to the Invincibles. 

	Although intensely complex, Kavanagh has successfully disentangled the many different factions of Irish politics and created a clear picture of the political playing field leading up to the murders of two innocent men, and the later assassination of James Carey. Although perhaps starting off overly long, with explanation and historical context taking up almost half of the text, the author provides the reader with an in-depth understanding of the many key players, important political movement, and events that made up a nation deeply divided over immense issues such as the question of Home Rule. The true crime aspect of the work picks up in the second half and does not leave the reader disappointed. Indeed, Kavanagh succinctly presents the narrative as it unfolds following the crime through both her own excellently crafted prose and a strong use of quotations from historical sources to bring events and characters to life.

	An interesting aspect of the work which many readers will take note of, is the constant presence of Queen Victoria herself throughout the entirety of the work. From the first pages that lay out the state of Irish politics in 1880, right up until the conclusion, Queen Victoria’s opinions and thoughts are included as events unfold. Kavanagh does the same with other key figures, such as Gladstone and Parnell, but it is refreshing to hear from the woman who took an intense interest in not just the Phoenix Park murders and their aftermath, but the welfare of Ireland in general. Although Queen Victoria was head of Great Britain and its burgeoning empire, it is not always usual to hear from her to this degree, many historians opting instead to solely focus on the more active political figures who formed her government. 

	In this text not only does Kavanagh demonstrate her superb understanding of Irish politics and history, but she creates a captivating and engrossing narrative of assassinations and machination as she outlines the case of the Phoenix Park murders and the fallout from this horrific crime. The Irish Assassins is a must read for true crime enthusiasts and history lovers alike and is indeed a work of high quality for which Kavanagh should be lauded. 

About the Author: 
Connor E. R. DeMerchant is an historian from Kingston, New Brunswick, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History from the University of New Brunswick - Saint John and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In the fall of 2021 he will be pursuing a PhD in history at the University of New Brunswick – Fredericton in the field of Caribbean history. Connor enjoys researching all aspect of Victorian Britain and its global empire, with his MA thesis focusing on Queen Victoria’s interest and impact on music during her reign. When not being an academic, Connor enjoys doing genealogy, rug-hooking, and thrifting.
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A page turner account of Anglo Irish relations, and the numerous ways the English attempted to crush the everlasting Irish spirit. Perfect for anyone interested in true crime, the sociopolitical effects of the British Empire, and rebellion.
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In The Irish Assassins, Julie Kavanaugh tells the story of the 1881 murder of two British colonial officials in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. In her marvelously engaging retelling, this seminal moment comes to encapsulate England’s oppressive —and, for most Americans, its largely unknown— relationship with Ireland for six hundred years and more.

Top line: The Irish Assassins, exhaustively researched, is a true-crime narrative set in a fulsome historical context. 

Kavanaugh presents the seemingly innumerable players in this saga vividly. And she never neglects the thorny human dimension of her story: the acts of impulse, folly, and desperation, of betrayal and heroism. In a nutshell, she has built a narrative that’s comprehensively faithful to the flow of events, both overt and behind-the-scenes, while never losing sight of the frailties and passionate commitments behind them. 

Here’s the pivotal moment: a squad of vaingloriously self-dubbed “Invincibles”, ragtag champions of a violent path to Irish independence, set upon and kill two men, Frederick Cavendish, the British government’s newly-appointed Secretary for Ireland, and Thomas Burke, the undersecretary. Burke is the intended victim. Lord Cavendish, unrecognized by the attackers, is dispatched when he steps up to defend Burke. 

The irony here: Cavendish is a figure generally viewed by reasonable Irish and English advocates of independence as sympathetic to the Irish cause. What’s more, liberal British Prime Minister William Gladstone is reportedly open to a compromise solution to the Irish problem as well, but now finds himself hamstrung by the optics of the brutal attack. 

Along with their self-evident political dimensions, acts like the Phoenix Park assassination stem in large part from impoverished conditions in the countryside, where native Irish —effectively sharecroppers in thrall to English and Anglo-Irish landowners— are starving and dying. Their staple potato crops are periodically failing, and their impoverished households are subject to arbitrary eviction from the land most of them have lived on and worked for generations.  
 
These conditions spark the “Land Wars”, marked by widespread civil disobedience and, with increasing frequency, outbreaks of violence by Irish tenants, or at least their political cadres. In a chilling foreshadowing of the “Troubles” in Ulster a century later, the Land Wars movement and its attendant violence are largely financed by astonishingly large donations from the Irish community in America. 

Among the grace notes of The Irish Assassins are Kavanaugh’s portraits of the principals in the crime and the widening circles of individuals touched by the event. They include the key Invincibles themselves, five of whom are convicted and executed, thanks to investigative work by the stalwart copper Thomas Mallon, who becomes known as the ‘Irish Sherlock Holmes’. 

The case Mallon builds is buttressed by the insider testimony of James Carey, turncoat and embodiment of that most hated type among the Irish, the informer. After the trial, Carey, supposedly under protection by the Crown, is subsequently unmasked and fatally shot aboard a steamer off the coast of South Africa. The shooter, an Irish-American, claims it was an accident.

A number of fascinating women emerge in the aftermath of the killings. Queen Victoria, for instance, a virulent partisan for the vast Empire over which she sits, glides onstage regularly to condemn the Irish independence movement and Gladstone’s liberal government as well. She displays an incessant fixation on the details of the investigation, trial, and execution of the accused perpetrators.

There are moving portrayals of other women as well, notably the murdered Cavendish’s widow Lucy and Prime Minister Gladstone’s wife and daughter. There’s also Katherine “Kitty” O’Shea, a would-be go-between the Irish freedom movement —specifically its leader, Charles Stewart Parnell— and Prime Minister Gladstone. 

Her motives, one might venture, are more than merely political. She has strayed into a secret affair with Parnell, apparently at the urging of her husband, an ambitious political animal. Years later, their ongoing relationship, still covert and an authentic true-love match, becomes public. It causes a massive scandal among Parnell’s Catholic constituency and leads to his political downfall. The pair ultimately marry and have children.  

There’s much in The Irish Assassins to please the serious historian and popular reader alike. One quibble: this reviewer was sometimes overwhelmed by the flood of characters the author necessarily introduces. An annotated roster of the principals up front in the volume might have helped. Otherwise… a  marvelous read.
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On May 6, 1882, Irish assassins murdered Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Burke in Dublin's Phoenix Park. These men were sent by Britain to broker an acceptable peace in Ireland. The shockwaves set the peace process back by decades. This is what a simple historical outline would show us. History is never this tidy.

In "The Irish Assassins" Julie Kavanagh brings the news and climate of 1880's Ireland alive. Centuries of abuse and ethnic cleansing by Britain created an atmosphere that could no longer be tolerated. Famine and mass evictions left the Irish with few options: starve to death, leave for America, or fight for independence. Irish leader Charles Parnell and British Prime Minister William Gladwell were trying to finesse a transition to Irish home rule but the rage of the people did not conform to their diplomatic timetable.  The Invincibles, assassins financed by Irish American money, found their opportunity to strike and, in doing so, upset the carefully laid-out political work.

Parnell's amazing background is fleshed out, as is Queen Victoria and all the other players in this story. We see the motivation of both sides in this drama. "The Irish Assassins" reads like a novel, you do not need to have a vast knowledge of the subject ahead of time to enjoy and appreciate it. I highly recommend it.

I am grateful to Julie Kavanagh, Atlantic Monthly Press, and NetGalley for providing the Advance Reader Copy in exchange for an honest review. #IrishAssassins #NetGalley
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Unfortunately, I can't seem to sustain interest in this book, so I am stopping at 25% as I feel this on is not for me.

Thank you for your kind understanding that not all books are for all people. 

I can see the author put a lot of research into this story.
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It's gripping, heartbreaking at times and made me learn something new about Irish history.
I appreciated how the author describes the whole picture, the historical roots and made me understand the reasons behind the killing.
It's not an easy read but it's an excellent book, a must read if you want to understand something more about Irish history.
Highly recommended.
Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine
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The Irish Assassins by Julie Kavanagh is an account of the Phoenix Park murders which occurred in Dublin in 1882. At a pivotal point in talks about Home Rule for Ireland , Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Burke, Chief Secretary and Undersecretary for Ireland, were brutally attacked and stabbed to death by members of a militant group of Republicans called the Invincibles. This immediately disrupted the talks that had been ongoing between British Prime Minister Gladstone and Charles Stuart Parnell , and ultimately resulted in many more years of bloodshed and sectarian violence. 
It is clear that the author has put a huge amount of work and research into this book, and in her notes at the end she explains that she was inspired by her father's research into this same case. The book is very detailed and quite wide in its scope, which has both benefits and drawbacks. The benefit is that she gives plenty of historical and cultural information to set the scene and try to explain the motivation for the murders, but by doing so it does mean that the book is quite slow paced and the reader must be patient. 
I read and reviewed an ARC courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher, all opinions are my own.
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My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher Grove Atlantic for an advanced copy of this new history book.
Julie Kavanagh in her new book The Irish Assassins: Conspiracy, Revenge and the Phoenix Park Murders that Stunned Victorian England recreates the time and the place of one of the more infamous politically motivated murders occurred and its long reaching repercussions between the country of Ireland and the United Kingdom. On May 6 1882 Lord Frederick Cavendish, Chief Secretary for Ireland and Thomas Burke, Permanent  Under Secretary at the Irish Office were stabbed to death by a group who called themselves the Invincibles, using specially-made surgeon blades to commit the crime. 

The Invincibles were a faction of the republicans who were tired of talk and wanted revenge more. The murders caused an uproar on all sides of the Atlantic, nearly causing the British government to be brought down, and set back relations between the two countries for decades. 

The political fallback mixes with the true crime aspect quite well, the research shows and while it helps having an idea about Irish and English history, it is not that necessary. Ms. Kavanagh's descriptions of the deprivations the poor people of Ireland felt is rough to read, and yet seems familiar to the treatment of certain people today. 

The author's note is also interesting as the is a little further expansion of why the book means a lot to Ms. Kavanagh as a writer and as a daughter. This is a very intriguing book about what seems to be a small crime that had repercussions that have lasted until today.
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An historical true crime from the 19th century

On the evening of May 6, 1882, Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Burke, Chief Secretary and Undersecretary for Ireland were strolling through Phoenix Park, Dublin. They were ambushed and were both stabbed to death. Who murdered them and why?

To answer these questions, Ms Kavanagh takes us on a journey through history, through the events that led to the murders and through their consequences.

At the time of the murders, Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish nationalist politician who served as a Member of Parliament between 1875 and 1882 and acted as the Leader of the Home Rule League from 1880 to 1882, and British Prime Minister William Gladstone had been working together to try to achieve peace and independence in Ireland. Lord Frederick Cavendish, as Gladstone’s protégé, was to play an instrumental role. These two murders destroyed the possibility of peace for decades, and almost brought down the government.

But, as Ms Kavanagh details, the story begins much earlier. Centuries of oppression, famine and mass evictions left the Irish with few choices. The people could starve, emigrate, or fight for independence. Many of those who emigrated (especially to America) supported Irish independence and provided funds for the fight. The murders of Cavendish and Burke were carried out by two assassins, members of the Irish National Invincibles, using surgical knives.

The investigation was led by Superintendent John Mallon, and by playing suspects off against each other, several were arrested and subsequently hanged.

Those are essentially the facts, but Ms Kavanagh brings the period to life with her descriptions of the key players and significant events in their lives. We learn of Queen Victoria’s interest, of Gladstone’s struggles to broker a deal, of Charles Stewart Parnell’s affair with Katharine O’Shea. But my particular interest was in the background and lives of people, such as Michael Davitt.

The author’s note, at the end of the book, is a particular highlight.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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Heart stopping, heart aching and unbearably true. The devastation Great Britain inflicted on Ireland for 800 years inspires the first almost successful rebellion. A page turner of inspiration and heartache.
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This was a fascinating account of not just the murder of Thomas Burke and Lord Frederick Cavendish on May 6th 1882 by the invisibles in Phoenix park, but also a meditation on why Irish/English relations turned hostile again shortly after. Overall I would definitely recommend this one, especially to history fans.
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Reading this as a kindle version made it much easier to put aside - with a physical copy, I would have just skipped through to the pertinent narrative and have had done with this in less than a day.

I believe that in order to construct a story around a single event, the author has cast a wide focus - too wide in my opinion; the narrative needed to be more linear. As such, I feel this failed to provide enough focus on the actual assassination, perpetrators and consequences early enough - it took just too long to get to the point. It was convoluted, lacking in structure and direction -  there was too much attention centred on individuals and events that had no relevance. I mean, the author's note says the tome was styled like " .... the shifting episodic structure of today's television dramas ..." - if this was an attempt to make the subject more palatable for the general reading public, then it missed the mark completely. 

The reader who picks this up is looking for more than a dry history lesson - they already have enough background knowledge - they are looking for a more narrow focus on a particular event.  Any reader attempting this tome should come well prepared and have read some cursory editions of Irish history and politics beforehand, for without this,  defeat will come faster than a politicians promise on election day.

Some serious restructuring is needed for this to appeal to the wider masses - having said that, neither of Kavanagh's predecessors - Tom Corfe and Senan Molony - managed to provide a decent narrative on the subject either.
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I found this to be a fascinating account of a critical event in Anglo-Irish history. It is rich in detail and beautifully written. I'm not sure if the reader needs to have  a background academic interest in the topic as some other reviewers have suggested. For me, it was accessible and gripping. I particularly enjoyed the depiction of Queen Victoria and Gladstone, forced to share the stage with Irish peasants. I also enjoyed the sweep and scope of the book from Donegal to South Africa. I found the author to be very even handed, too, with compassion for all of the characters, and I was moved by the love story of CS Parnell and Katherine O'Shea ( Kitty ) and its tragic outcome.
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An interesting review of a topic that I personally had very little knowledge of beforehand and might not have learned about otherwise. Does read a bit dry in spots, but well researched and holds the attention.
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The Irish Assassins by Julie Kavanagh. If I'm honest I was unsure what to make of this book. I have an interest in history but know almost nothing of Irish history. The synopsis of this book appealed to me, I like reading about true crime and am always interested to read on cases that I am unfamiliar with. I had assumed this book would simply walk me through the murders that took place in Dublin in the 1880's. However, this book, which is part true crime and part Irish history lesson, which, while I liked, at times I found the socio-political landscape a little hard going and difficult to wrap my head around. It is very clear that Ms Kavanagh has put a huge amount of research into this book and that is to be commended …however, I think my knowledge of Irish history is far too little in order to fully appreciate this book. Overall, I did enjoy this book, but did find I had to go back a few pages at times in order to reread or refresh my memory.
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*Many thanks to Julie Kavanagh, Grove Atlantic, and NetGalley for arc inexchange for my honest review.*
I am afraid I was not the target reader having too little knowldege on Ireland and her complicated history. The author did a terrific research into history and presents details which unfortunately seem to many to me. I was not expecting that detailed introduction and probably missed out on many niceties regarding the assasination and at times was overwhelmed by all information.
This is a perfect read for those who have more than a general understanding of the Ireland inthe 19th century.
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I was truly looking forward to reading The Irish Assassins.  When I began, I expected a bit of a history lesson to explain the social and political environs of the time.  This was aptly provided.  The colonization if Ireland and the death and destruction that followed was horrifying, The Julie Kavanagh details more than I had previously been aware. At a certain point, I did start to feel as if I was simply reading the day to day docket of the political going on in parliament and in within Ireland.  That portion did tend to drag on a bit.  The story does pick up one the assassinations take place.  In some way s I feel the book did not totally identify it's target audience.  While obviously extremely well researched, I would not say it is a history text.  Neither would I say this is a lay person's historical read,  What I did find fascinating was the author's note about how she came about the story in her father's belongings and how she followed the trail upon his death,   If told through her journey through that discovery and her own research, it would have been a different book, but perhaps more interesting.  I do appreciate the hard work and diligence that was put  into the The Irish Assassins, but in the end, it was not my favorite read,
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Although well written and thoroughly researched, this is a book in search of an audience and I imagine it’s unlikely to find a receptive one. It is too academic to be a general interest history, but too general to be of use to academics. The book offers interesting insight into the Parnell/O’Shea relationship but will not be of interest to those who aren’t already well-versed in this period of Irish history. 

[I received this book as an ARC from Grove Atlantic and NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.]
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I received an advance copy of, The Irish Assassins, by Julie Kavanagh.  This book was good, if  a little dry at times.  A history lesson of Victorian Ireland.
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I recommend that you start this interesting book by reading the author's note at the end. It begins on page 357 (Kindle location 4799) of the free electronic advance review copy that Grove Atlantic Press and Netgalley generously provided me.

This advice doesn't apply to everybody, only to readers like me. I am a non-historian history nerd and an American of Irish heritage but, somehow, this whole sad and murderous episode escaped my attention up until now. It certainly wasn't taught in history classes I attended. I felt bad until I checked with the Long-Suffering Wife (smarter than me, also a nerd of Irish heritage) and found that she had never heard of it, either.

I imagine that people receiving a normal education in Ireland – and perhaps in the UK as well – get at least a quick run-through of this episode at some point. You all can start at the beginning.

(Starting at the end leads straight to some spoilers, of course, but since the book centers around a pair of 1882 murders which are adequately documented in many places on the internet, I feel that I can reveal some of the story below without annoying those in search of nail-biting suspense.)

In addition, this author's note is much more interesting than many. The author has written two biographies, one of a ballet star and the other of a 19th century courtesan, so you wouldn't necessarily expect to find her writing next about a pack of Fenian thugs and their English colonial overlords. But she was inspired when she found, in the papers of her late father, a decades-old load of laborious, hand-written, pre-internet research on this episode, which became the kernel of this book.

Reading the author's note first also provides a summary of what goes on in the previous 356 pages, which I found handy as I tend to read books in the spare minutes over lunch or before sleeping, sometimes without giving my full attention, so I might have gotten a little lost in the thicket of fairly similar-sounding English and Irish names.

The author defies what I consider to be a narrative structure which has been used so often in popular history books that it has become something of a cliché. In this structure, the author starts the first chapter in the moments before the most dramatic event, that is, the one referred to the book's title. An author employing this type of structure might begin a book about this episode like this: “The assassins gathered near Phoenix Park in the early afternoon twilight of May 6, 1882”. Then begins several chapters of backstory, moving from years before toward the moment previewed in the first chapter.

I like books with this start-in-the-middle structure, but I recognize that it has been overused. I like it because it is familiar, like a old blanket. I think that some of the potential audience for this book feel this same. The decision not to use this structure is a courageous decision – although I don't know if it was an intentional choice by the author. In any event, this authorial decision makes it doubly rewarding to read the book-summarizing author's note at the end first, because you start with a better idea of the direction that the book will eventually lead you.

The first five chapters are the backstory, and you learn a lot about Gladstone and Parnell – suited me well, I don't know as much about them as I should. The actual murderers aren't introduced until Chapter Six – again, I thought it an interesting authorial decision to hold off so long. The actual murder takes place in Chapter Eight. The subsequent investigation and trial takes a few more chapters. However, about this time, the observant reader may notice that there is a big fat chuck of the book left, meaning, lots of stuff happens after the trial is over.

It does – there is indeed another murder, followed by investigation, political maneuvering, and another trial. If I had not read the author's note first, this would have been a bit of a surprise but, as I had informed myself already, I understood what I was in for.

As the Long-Suffering Wife will tell you, I am not very big on surprises.

So, in summary, the sort of book which pleases me – one that drags a historic incident, big news at the time but now no longer taught in many places, into the light and gives it an airing out. In addition to moving the author's note to the beginning, I might have also included a “cast of characters” to help the distracted reader, but the lack of these things are not a great drawback, now that we all have the computing power of the world at our fingertips.

I received a free electronic advance review copy of this book from Gross Atlantic Press and Netgalley. Thanks to all for your generosity.
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