…depending on what side of the Atlantic you’re on. I’m not sure why the publishers felt that Americans needed the more straightforward title, but that’s the one we got.
If sorted out into the order of events as they took place, earliest to latest, first to last (from Elizabeth Cree’ perspective at any rate), the story is easy enough to describe, whichever title you prefer: a serial killer is stalking the Limehouse District of London in 1880. The killings resemble those of Jack the Ripper in that the victims are dismembered and left arranged in a coolly significant manner, or so it appears to the police.
A more complete description which would be clear to those who haven’t much experience in non-linear narrative is difficult. It’s a kaleidoscopically fragmented story, which begins at both ends and works towards the solution, which is technically the middle of the story if regarded in a sequentially linear fashion. The book opens with the hanging of the (American) titular character, Elizabeth Cree, follows with a fragment of her trial transcript, then leaps to her childhood and adolescence in the Limehouse District of London, eking out a paltry existence with her crazed sickly religiously obsessed mother…and discovering the joys of the music hall and the performers who worked therein. As she works her way up the latter of music hall performers, she comes to the notice of one John Cree, making a living as a newspaper journalist while dreaming of writing and producing a play. They marry, making do with one maid of all work, an acquaintance of Lizzie during her work on stage prior to marriage. The marriage proves difficult for both John and Lizzie, as their expectations of marriage resulting from their differing backgrounds prove somewhat incompatible.
Or so we’ve been led to believe by Lizzie’s narrative and John’s diary.
The story jumps from third person omniscient perspective to first person limited personal narrative, from trial transcripts to diary entries at a rate which will make more adventurous readers long for the simplicity of James Joyce’s Ulysses. As the story proceeds from the beginning, or rather the end, to the explanation to the denouement and motivation, we learn more about the primary players in this drama:
a) Limehouse Lizzie, who took to the boards after her mother’s demise to support herself and learned that absent the religious restrictions her mother had imposed, she had a talent for music hall comedies, in particular masquerading as various characters of both genders1.
b) John Cree, mild-mannered newspaper reporter with a dream of writing a play
c) Victorian London, specifically the lower classes and seedier districts of same
While the plot is a fiction, the London in which this novel is set is quite real, as are a number of the characters, both primary and secondary, ranging from Dan Leno to George Gissing and Karl Marx2, and the vector which connected many of them, the British Museum Reading Room. Today, it’s possible to for Americans to forget at least briefly how these neighborhoods were once quite different from the London of today. They were originally separate cities, set apart from one another by a fair distance if one was limited to walking and further distinguished as crossing the river wasn’t so easy in the absence of today’s bridges. Today, there is no truly “cheap” part of London, and many of the seedier districts are today becoming gentrified at a rate that pushes the lower income residents farther away from the city itself, much as the South of Market district in San Francisco is so similarly becoming an acceptable place for yuppies, rather than winos. Ackroyd, having written several nonfiction books about London and the literature of the late Victorian age, has imbued The Trial of Elizabeth Cree with much of his knowledge of the time.
Who might like this book? Perhaps someone who finds the straightforward cozy mysteries who finds the atmosphere of Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes mysteries preferable to the modern BBC series, no matter how well acted the latter may be. It is not for those readers squeamish about the details of a very squicky serial killer’s process of selecting and mutilating victims, nor is it for those who prefer linear plots which do not violate any of Father Knox’s rules.
1keep an eye on this ability to masquerade, however implausibly, as a person of the opposite gender
2sorry, you’ll have to look him up yourself if you don’t recognize the name