From the legendary Famous Trials series of real-life courtroom dramas, two classic murder trials abridged and refreshed as Penguin Specials for modern readers, selected and introduced by Alex McBride, author of Defending the Guilty
Nineteen year-old Madeleine Smith may have been charged in 1857 with poisoning her lover, Emile L'Angelier, but her real sin was having sex - a lot of sex - out of wedlock. Her mistake was to write him frank and passionate letters, described by the trial judge as 'without any sense of decency', which L'Angelier threatened to send to her father when she cooled on the idea of marriage, having secretly engaged herself to someone else.
Some fifty years later, the trial of Robert Wood, a respectable, hard-working illustrator by day, who frolicked with prostitutes by night, including the unfortunate Emily Dimmock, also hinged on a dangerous correspondence. Dimmock's murderer had evidently ransacked her rooms for a postcard written by Wood. Was there something he was desperate to hide? The author of his trial is certain he was guilty.
But both escaped conviction - in Wood's case, thanks to the defence of the best defence barrister in the land. In Madeleine Smith's, the three judges ruled two-to-one to exclude from evidence L'Angelier's pocket book, which recorded her meetings with him on the day of the murder. These two salacious and controversial trials demonstrate how the dramatic difference between 'guilty' and 'not guilty' can sometimes be decided by a mere scrap of paper.
The legendary Famous Trials series set the benchmark for historical crime writing with its accounts of the most notorious and intriguing criminal trials of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Expertly reconstructed from court transcripts, these often sensational narratives have gripped generations of readers since they first appeared in 1941. In this digital edition, two of the very best Famous Trials have been selected, introduced and further abridged by criminal barrister and author Alex McBride to provide modern readers with the most compelling versions yet of these court-room classics.
Alex McBride is a criminal barrister. His book Defending the Guilty: Truth and Lies in the Criminal Courtroom was shortlisted for the 2010 Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction and is available in Penguin. He has written for the Guardian, Independent, Prospect and New Statesman, and has contributed to various BBC programmes, including From Our Own Correspondent.
'Expert, authoritative, hilarious - an insider's fearless account of life at the criminal bar' Times Literary Supplement Books of the Year on Defending the Guilty