This review first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement of September 21st 2012. The book in question is Peter Moore's Damn His Blood which I am able to recommend to you unreservedly.
Even before the “wild and merciless crime” which would make it infamous, the village of Oddingley in Worcestershire possessed a minatory air. As an outsider in the early nineteenth century, passing by “its sloping meadows… tangled hedgerows and lonely farmhouses” one would have been greeted by sullen residents, secretive faces and an atmosphere, stifled yet palpable, of simmering resentment and fury. On 24th June, 1806 – Midsummer’s Day – these things boiled into murder. The vicar of Oddingley, Reverend George Parker, was beaten savagely and shot dead in his own meadow. His body was discovered in “a state of burning”, his head “horribly clubbed inwards”, even as the killer, “wrapped in a blue greatcoat” and “deathly pale”, was glimpsed fleeing dementedly into the distance.
Retelling these events in the twenty-first century is, according to Peter Moore, author of Damn His Blood: Being a True and Detailed History of the Most Barbarous and Inhumane Murder at Oddingley and the Quick and Awful Retribution, “like peering into a darkened room lit only by dim chinks of light”. He does himself a disservice. The book (Moore’s first) is vivid, intense and often frightening. Despite the incomplete nature of the documentary evidence and the paucity of any visual representations of his principals, Moore’s reanimation of “the expressive and uncouth Georgian society that directly preceded Victorian Britain” has richness, vibrancy and heft. His deferral of the solution and careful, almost novelistic release of information suggest the skilled restraint of a far more experienced writer.
One hesitates to proffer further details. The pleasures of the book are to be found in its meticulous unwinding of the truth and to reveal more might threaten to dilute its effect. Nonetheless, there is much in this brilliant, startling debut which will linger long in the memory, images which may even, for the unwary reader, make sleep temporarily difficult: the smouldering grass around Parker’s body, the appearances of the killer in the months before the slaying “in certain lanes and fields… before vanishing completely without either trace or explanation”, the villager at the funeral laughing at the dead man’s grave and, ultimately, the brutality of the murder’s sequel. “What initially appeared to be a single vicious act,” Moore tells us, “transpired, in time, to be something far worse”.