The Dublin Railway Murder is a real-life locked room mystery, the details of which wouldn’t be out of place in an Agatha Christie novel.
In November 1956, the body of George Little, a fastidious cashier for the Midland Great Western Railway Company in Dublin, was found inside his locked office at the Broadstone Station in the city. His throat had been cut so deeply that he was almost decapitated and hundreds of pounds worth of gold and silver were still neatly stacked on his desk. There were no signs of a struggle or a robbery, so the initial assumption was suicide. As such, there was no attempt to secure the scene, the office was tidied up before detectives arrived and the evening papers reported on the suicide of a railway clerk.
The following day, two facts came to light that changed everything. When Little’s head was shaved for autopsy, the vicious blows which had shattered his skull were discovered and upon a recount it became evident that £300 was missing from the office. Suddenly, the city realised that a thief and killer was on the loose but with no clues to go on, a tainted murder scene and no sign of the stolen money, it wasn’t long before the investigation stalled. The police believed the perpetrator was an employee of the Railway, who would have known the labyrinthine layout of the Broadstone building and would have also known the George Little regularly worked alone, late at night.
An unfathomable motive, a hint of conspiracy, an exotic method of dispatching the victim – these were ingredients that could elevate a quotidian crime into an extraordinary one.
However, it took seven months and a series of prime suspects, before a breakthrough came in the case, when a woman came forward to confess that she had helped her husband dispose of his bloody clothes following the murder and hide the stolen money. This meant that someone could now stand trial for a crime that had held a city in thrall for months, but the state’s main witness, his wife, could not testify against him due to the laws of the day.
Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is almost fifteen years old and since then, there has been a procession of books about sensational crimes from the nineteenth century. Detective Whicher even makes a brief appearance in The Dublin Railway Murder, having been sent over by Scotland Yard to assist in the case, but returning to London within a matter of days, none-the-wiser about this most mysterious of crimes.
Like Summerscale, Morris is very good on the mores of the time, smartly sprinkling his narrative with historical detail and context, while keeping the crime and resulting trial to the fore. He explores the laws of the time, the public appetite for stories about crime, the distrust and outright dislike of city detectives and the stereotyping of the Irish as a morally backward and lawless society in the British Press. In fact, Morris highlights that Ireland was, in fact, relatively safe in terms of crime, a lot safer than Britain at the time and that one of the reasons that the murder of George Little so captured the public imagination was because homicide was almost unknown in the capital city.
There are some pacing issues in the opening sections of the book, mainly due to the interminable yet necessary descriptions of the layout of the railway building, the locking and unlocking of doors and the movements of the main suspects on the evening in question. However, once the investigation and trial begin in earnest, the story barrels along, reading like the best page-turner of a procedural and building to the shocking outcome of the trial. At the time, the Broadstone Murder was a cause celebre, meaning that every court hearing was faithfully transcribed by competing newspapers, giving Morris a thorough and detailed base from which to work.
The bizarre after-life of this crime, thanks to the interest of famed phrenologist Frederick Bridges, is also thoroughly explored and provides a fascinating insight into explorations of criminality at the time.
However, what The Dublin Railway Murders does best, is to finally centre George Little, the often forgotten victim of this senseless crime. His story – and that of his family – bookends the narrative and serves as a vital reminder that at the heart of all these true-crime stories, no matter how old, are people whose lives have been needlessly torn apart.
The Dublin Railway Murder ensures that the name George Little is now as well known as that of the man who achieved national notoriety by killing him.
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