A murderer unmasked after sixty years…
I’ve been looking for some real-life murder stories set in South Lincolnshire and can’t find any; I’m not sure whether the people of Holland are unusually law-abiding, unusually cunning or just lucky. However, my search did turn up Poison Farm: a Murderer Unmasked, by David Williams. It’s set in Suffolk, not too far away from South Lincs; as it’s still East Anglia, it ‘counts’. Williams tells a fascinating story, not least because the murder – of prominent local farmer William Murfitt, who had quite a seamy private life – took place in 1938, in the village of Risby, when he was himself growing up there. He remained preoccupied with it, until he investigated more fully in 2003, after retiring from journalism.
Williams paints a graphic portrait of what village life was like just within living memory. The archaically hierarchical nature of the small but prosperous farming communities of the time is conveyed well – some of the people and situations that he describes could have come straight from the pages of a novel by Trollope. (Much of this strict adherence to the class structure would shortly be swept away by the Second World War.) He also manages to capture a fine example of a perennial female figure who, in fiction as life, has always managed to inveigle herself into the upper levels of local social hierarchy, despite its snobbishness and respect for tradition. She is the adventuress with a shadowy past. The lady in question in this story rejoices in the name of ‘Lady’ Mary Elizabeth Fernie Chandler, or some less flamboyant combination of these names, as the occasion demands. She is the literary descendant of Becky Sharp, the real-life counterpart of the Duchess of Windsor (also known as Bessie Wallis Warfield, sometime Spencer, sometime Simpson).
The murderer of William Murfitt was never charged or prosecuted, though Williams thinks that he has identified the culprit; in the course of telling the tale he builds a convincing case, based partly on a re-examination of the evidence, partly on the reminiscences of some extraordinarily long-lived survivors, already adults at the time of Murfitt’s death, whom he manages to interview. In the process, he comes to the conclusion that the perpetrator had probably also committed another murder some years previously.
Modern forensic techniques might have resulted in a conviction if Murfitt’s murder had happened today. Yet this is not necessarily the case: the two policemen sent to Risby, Detective Chief Inspector Leonard Burt and Detective Sergeant Reginald Spooner, both became celebrated later for their acumen and sureness of touch. Each went on to solve many serious crimes, including other murders. David Williams’ story illustrates perhaps that you can get away with murder, if you have the nerve to stick to your story… and a little bit of luck.