REVIEW: Foul Deeds & Suspicious Deaths In Birmingham by Nick Billingham
When we hear of the horrific details of acts of murder or sadistic cruelty, many people take a morbid comfort in the fact that these incidents happen at a reasonable physical distance away from themselves. It is human nature to subconsciously distance ourselves from acts we struggle to comprehend. We create a barrier which separates our lived-in world from the one in which brutal atrocities are allowed to happen. It is a kind of defence mechanism, and one which we subconsciously employ more regularly than we would imagine.
Murder in Birmingham
It is for this reason that Nick Billingham’s series of West Midlands-based books on true crime have more of an impact on me than reading about killers like Ted Bundy or Peter Sutcliffe. These people are mythical beings who I can maintain a safe distance from both physically and psychologically, but reading about a hanging which took place in the same street as I now get my hair cut on leaves an impact which can be difficult to shake off.
More Foul Deeds & Suspicious Deaths In Birmingham is an anthology of murder and horrific acts, all of which occurred in Britain’s second-favourite city. The book begins with an introduction to Birmingham and its history of crime and violence, as well as an outline of some of the more infamous barbaric acts which occurred between the nineteenth century and the present day. The book is written in chronological order, from 1817 up to 1948, boasting a total of twenty-seven separate cases.
What becomes immediately clear is the incredible quality of Nick Billingham’s writing style. Although he is detailing incidents from two-hundred years ago – incidents which are often reduced down to only the bare facts – he is maintaining a writing style which is almost fictional in its prose. With each entry, Billingham tells a story, albeit stories which are based on factual accuracies.
In true fiction style, Billingham inserts dialogue as though we were reading a best-selling thriller novel. He sets up scenes with descriptions of streets, weather, architecture, and whatever else might reside in a previous era of Birmingham. He explains enough backstory to each relevant character so that the reader is able to get an idea of who they are, what they looked like and what their day-to-day lives entailed. By the time it comes to meet their grisly demise at the end of each chapter, it is difficult to not feel a pang of sadness as we read of the deaths of these people we have only recently learnt so much of.
The research which Billingham has put into his work is nothing short of extraordinary. A quick internet search of some of the cases in the book are quick to yield very little information. Billingham credits the libraries of the West Midlands in providing him with the relevant information for each case, the majority of which are from newspaper clippings which have never been translated for online purposes. In a world which is increasingly reliant on internet activity, it is refreshing to learn details which have sidestepped the internet. Billingham’s painstaking research is also evident by the vast amount of images inserted throughout the book. Adorning each chapter is multiple accompanying images of murder weapons, crime scene locations, newspaper clippings, maps, prisons and drawings.
Billingham has spared no expense in regards to immersing the reader into the book, something which adds incredible amount of readability. In this respect, More Foul Deeds & Suspicious Deaths In Birmingham is not simply a list of the facts which one would assume from the book’s core premise, but a purposely-woven anthology of tension, intrigue and mystery.
Chapter 16 was a personal favourite for me as it dealt with the little-known serial killer Henry Gaskin. Any true crime aficionados out there may recognise the name, however they are likely thinking of the American serial killer Henry “Pee Wee” Gaskins who happens to share the same name as a little-known murderer from my home town. For many years I have suffered the frustration of trying to research details of Henry Gaskin, the wife-murderer from Hednesford, only to be greeted with information about the notorious American serial killer. Much to my delight, Nick Billingham has done the hard work for me. The details which Billingham goes into more than satisfies my curiosity on the case.
[It is interesting to note that I have a friend who is actually a relative of Henry Gaskin. She still lives in Hednesford, where Gaskin also resided. More amazingly, however, is that her husband is a relative of John Ellis, the man who hanged Gaskin in 1919!]
More Foul Deeds & Suspicious Deaths In Birmingham
On the whole, More Foul Deeds & Suspicious Deaths In Birmingham is easily one of the most enjoyable true crime books I’ve read to date. It is packed full of information which has been purposefully extracted from arguably-forgotten archives in the Birmingham library vault. As the people involved in these cases succumb to the ever-spinning wheel of time, these fascinating stories would fade from public knowledge if not for for Billingham’s ambitious work. For these stories to go untold would be a crime itself.
The book is made all the more rewarding thanks to Billingham’s masterful storytelling. Each story follows a structured narrative which is simple to follow, yet doesn’t sacrifice factual accuracies for sensationalism. Billingham also implies elements of humour throughout the book, something which I found made some of the stories less grim and sometimes more relatable. An example:
“A book about murders does tend to be unremittingly grim, both researching and writing it. One does develop a rather cavalier and callous attitude to human frailty. The heart tends to sink at the thought of yet another person saving the cost of a divorce lawyer by cutting his wife’s throat, and wish they could at least be a little more imaginative in their choice of weapon.”
Billingham then goes on to discuss multiple crimes of passion – crimes which we hear so much of even today. Billingham’s melancholic approach to their prevalence is somewhat comforting, despite its depressing reality.