Through a series of mediums - court records from the trial, the diary of the Elizabeth's husband's diary and the story told by both Elizabeth Cree and her husband - the story of Elizabeth Cree is set out, from the death of her mother, through her acting career, marriage and finally hanging for the murder of her husband. Her life began in Lambeth Marsh, where she was brought up by her mother. Her early life involved poverty, ill treatment and prostitution. Her life changed the day her hated mother died - finally she was able to escape from the clutches of Lambeth Marsh. She ends up working for a theatre company where the famous Dan Leno, character actor extraordinaire, is based. After a period of time doing odd jobs, she is taken on as a character actor in her own right.
Interspersed with Elizabeth's story is a number of murders committed by a being that the locals name the Limehouse Golem, reported partially from diaries attributed to Elizabeth Cree's husband, John. The murders are particularly cruel and heartless - the first diary entry begins with the phrase: 'It was a fine bright morning, and I could feel a murder coming on.' Eventually we discover that John Cree is a journalist and through his contacts with the theatre, he meets Elizabeth and eventually marries her. Their marriage appears to be happy, although Elizabeth has to stop working. Her maid is a former employee of the theatre. The macabre murders continue; then John Cree dies, seemingly of poison. Could it be that Elizabeth has discovered that her husband is the Limehouse Golem and has seen fit to get rid of him? Whether or not this is the case, Elizabeth is accused of his murder and is hung for it.
Peter Ackroyd is probably most famous for his biographies of Dickens and T S Eliot, but in this case at least, has also make a foray into crime fiction. Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem is not at all disappointing. Although it is crime fiction, the quality of the writing is far better than most crime fiction and the book would also have a place in the modern classics section. The story was so realistic that it could have been based on a true story - it isn't, but it is incredibly believable.
Confusingly, although Dan Leno is mentioned in the title of the book and is a real person, he only plays a minor part in the book. Elizabeth, who shows a remarkable talent for acting and comedy, becomes his protegee, although for some reason, he chooses to keep his distance from her. Elizabeth herself is portrayed as a young woman who has suffered greatly and who has a cruel streak, but has luckily managed to find her feet in the theatre. Her marriage to John Cree appears to be happy, certainly according to his diaries, he frequently refers to Elizabeth as 'his dear wife.' So the fact that Elizabeth poisons her husband seems incongruous.
This is a strange book and to begin with, it is hard to tell whether it is a good one or not. The story is confused by John Cree's visits to the British Library, where he is in the company of characters such as Karl Marx, who later becomes a possible suspect following the murder of someone he had visited shortly before his death. The introduction of these historical characters and various treatises on Thomas de Quincey's works, among others, is unnecessary and comes over as being pretentious. Peter Ackroyd has obviously researched the period well - this certainly comes across in the descriptions of the theatres of the time - but there was no need for these additions, other than he wanted to show off his knowledge. Generally, it was very distracting.
Despite this, the actual story is great. The ending is surprising, although looking back, it was obvious, and after the first few chapters of the book, it was hard to put down. The atmosphere is very Victorian and macabre and we find out just enough about the characters to become interested in them, without finding out enough to guess the ending. On the whole, the good parts of this book far outweigh the bad, hence the four star rating. Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem both to fans of crime fiction and fans of well-written novels - but bear in mind that you need to get through the first few chapters before becoming hooked.