Ralph Spurrier – (yes,the author uses his own name as the bookseller in the novel), is an antiquarian bookseller who buys an entire collection of books from an estate sale. Within this collection he discovers not only the property of the deceased, Reginald Manley, who worked as a hang man, but also the diaries and books of the last man he executed, Henry Eastman.
Reginald Manley – an accountant before WWII, he attains the rank of officer during the time he spent overseas. He was instrumental in the liberation of the Belsen concentration camp. When he returns to England, to his wife with whom he does not love, he works once again as an accountant as well as being a Chief Executioner when the need arises.
Henry Eastman – the son of a couple who run a confectionery shop in Bradford-on-Avon, he is a large boy who grows into an even larger man. His father died before the war began and he is raised by his mother, whom he adores. Because of his large size, he is ostracized by his peers and he becomes quite socially withdrawn with only his mother and his beloved books for company. Henry never really knew love in his short life.
Henry’s mother, Mavis Eastman, was also an interesting character. I enjoyed reading of how she coped during the dire years of war rationing, being a single Mum, and running her confectionery shop.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when picked up “A Coin for the Hangman“. It wouldn’t have mattered what my expectations were, it would still have surprised me. This debut novel was actually a story – within a story – within a story.
The first narrative showcases Ralph Spurrier (coincidentally the same name as the author), an antiquarian book seller who put me in mind of the Cliff Janeway series by John Dunning. Then, when the protagonist from that story-line buys an estate lot of books, he discovers that he now owns the book collection and tools of one of the last public hangmen in Britain, Reginald Manley. Within that collection are the books and diaries of the last man Reg Manley executed, Henry Eastman.
Henry’s story was my favourite of all and it is through Ralph’s interview of one of Henry’s childhood acquaintances, coupled with a mysterious old photograph, that acts as a catalyst for the entire book. Reg’s experiences during the war were also very memorable – especially his reminiscences of the British liberation of the Belsen concentration camp in April of 1945. Also during the war years, Reg was acquainted with a fellow soldier, George Tanner, who comes to play a part in Henry Eastman’s life story.
Yes, this was a murder mystery but it was so much more. It was historical fiction that bordered on the literary. That is not to say that it didn’t have a few flaws – it was a debut novel after all. I found the culprit, when revealed, seemed to not have a very powerful motive for his crime. Also, the linkage of the three story-lines seemed rather contrived, yet while reading the inner stories, I sort of forgot about the initial one, so perhaps it was effective after all…
All, in all, this was a noteworthy novel which will remain in my memory for quite some time. Recommended to those readers who enjoy historical mysteries, and unique plots.
This review was written voluntarily and my rating was in no way influenced by the fact that I received a complimentary digital copy of this novel from Hookline Books.
ISBN: 9780993287466 ASIN: B01CKX2YCG 268 pages
Ralph Spurrier has had a long history in the book trade – from Foyles to MacMillan to Victor Gollancz – before launching Post Mortem Books, which specialises in the sale of crime fiction. He studied creative writing at the University of Sussex. “A Coin for the Hangman” is his first novel.