So. How to describe this book? Well, in his introduction to this collection of William Roughead’s writings on true crime, Luc Sante suggests that the author might just be the Henry James of the genre, which is a fascinating thought, and given Roughead’s prose style (which I loved, by the way) I can see why he came to that conclusion.

Roughead was a Scot, born in 1870, who trained as a lawyer but found his calling in writing about famous crimes, mostly but not entirely Scottish, and mostly, but not entirely murders. He is notable for the fact that he attended every significant murder trial held in Edinburgh between 1889 and 1949, a remarkable feat. And he turned most of them into articles or books written in his own inimitable style which would, as has been said by others, make you think that he came from a much earlier age. I found myself reading out whole paragraphs to the Book God because they were too much fun not to be shared.

This is hugely enjoyable if you are at all interested in true crime. Roughead covers some of the very obvious ones like Deacon Brodie, Burke & Hare and Madeleine Smith, but also others that I wasn’t familiar with at all, such as the Arran and Ardlamont cases.

 The one that particularly caught my interest was his revisiting of the infamous Oscar Slater case which was taken up by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice of the early twentieth century. It made me angry to read how Slater was imprisoned for many years for a crime he didn’t commit,  the ineptitude of the legal system that couldn’t or wouldn’t recognise that the police had got it wrong, even to the extent of persecuting one of their own officers. Slater was never pardoned and no-one else was prosecuted for the crime, and the case has had an impact in modern times, expecially around the conduct of identity parades.

But setting aside crossness at the lack of justice meted out in some of these cases, there is a huge amount of pleasure to be gained in Roughead’s prose style. It’s a chunky read but rewarding.