Monday 30 May 2011

Monday Musings: The Unreliable Life of Harry The Valet by Duncan Hamilton

Note: This book was received from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

The story of Harry the Valet may not be particularly familiar to modern readers, but he was something of a celebrity in the Victorian age. He achieved notoriety by stealing thousands of pounds worth of jewels from the Dowager Duchess of Sutherland - much to the delight of many people who disliked the lady, which appears to have been pretty much everyone who ever met her. Having pulled off this audacious theft, Harry seemed to be invincible - but he was brought down by his love for a Gaiety Girl, and ended up facing a trial which the papers fell over themselves to report on.

Author Duncan Hamilton takes an impressive list of sources - chiefly the Valet's own autobiography, which he admits is not necessarily the most accurate of documents, but also hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles and another two hundred or so books about the era - and weaves a compelling tale out of this fascinating character. The Valet himself is portrayed fairly sympathetically; far more so than the Dowager Duchess, the girl he falls for, or some of the other criminals mentioned in passing. That's not to say his crimes and the effect they had on others are completely glossed over - just that it's made clear that he was something of a Robin Hood figure, robbing from the rich and giving to a rather small section of the poor (namely, himself.)

I've now read several true crime stories set in this era and on balance I think this probably stands out as the best - Harry is a really interesting central figure, and the pacing is perfect, giving us lots of information about the trial and his many crimes without ever overloading us. It's also really atmospheric, capturing the flavour of the Valet's times, in locations ranging from London clubs to country estates to the Continent.

Overall this is a strong recommendation to fans of true crime or the Victorian era in particular, and thrilling non-fiction in general.

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