The Curious Habits of Doctor Adams by Jane Robins

17971489It’s lovely when you spot a book and everything  falls into place. The title caught my eye, the cover made it look promising, and when I placed that name Jane Robins I knew that I was in safe hands. I had been very taken with her book about the case of the brides in the bath. I’d known of that case – though I’d not known much about it – before I picked the book up, but I had no idea at all who Doctor Adams was.

I was to find out ….

John Bodkin Adams was born and raised in Ireland, the son of a strict, religious mother. He set out to raise himself, and to make his mother proud by going to medical school. It soon became clear that his ambition and aspirations outstripped his talents, but he managed to qualify as a doctor, and to establish himself in a medical practice in Eastbourne.

It did not take very long at all for Doctor Adams to acquire all of the trappings of wealth. He had a grand house; his staff included a chauffeur, gardener and housekeeper; and his fleet of cars included a Rolls Royce. However did a general practitioner fund such a lavish lifestyle?

It seems that Doctor Adams had a particular speciality, a gift for taking care of elderly widows. He knew that most of their problems came from being fragile, from being troubled by their nerves, and so he prescribed them sedatives, in increasing amounts. He visited them daily, he reassured them, looking after their house, their staff, advising their solicitors, relieving them of all their worries. They loved him. At least, most of them did.

In the end though, they all died. And it was natural that there would be a legacy for the doctor ….

There was a great deal of gossip about Doctor Adams, and in time the police became suspicious. The doctor was horribly secretive about how he was treating his patients. He was quick to sign a death certificate that recorded a natural death, declaring that he would not benefit from the deceased’s will even when he knew that he would. And he even organised the funerals, over the heads of family and friends, usually arranging for the body to be cremated.

Jane Robins told the stories of so many women, clearly and lucidly, and with a keen eye for signoficant details. The window left wide open on a cold day, the nurse sent out of the room for no good reason, the valuable ‘gifts’ taken home by the doctor while his patients lay unconscious in their beds. Those details were telling, and at times heart-breaking.

There was no doubt that Doctor Adams was unprofessional and self serving. That he was arrogant, insensitive, hostile to criticism, and driven by a need for money, status and social position. But was he killing his patients? There was a great deal of evidence, so much of it was circumstantial, the situation was sensitive, and it all hung on the doctor’s intent ….

It didn’t help that at the time – after the war but before the NHS – doctors were regarded with great reverence and respect, and that it was unthinkable to question a doctor’s treatment of his patients. Other local doctors – even though they surely must have questioned many aspects of his behaviour –  closed ranks and refused to help the police.

A senior officer from Scotland Yard to be assigned to the case, a  Home Office pathologist identified 163 suspicious cases, and after many months and two exhumations Doctor Adams was charged with murder. Just one case, the case that police thought most likely to bring about a conviction, but  second charge was prepared, and would be made if the first charge failed.

The account of the investigation, the arrest and the trial is just as striking, just as compelling as what came before.

The facts were very well presented, the research was clearly as thorough as it possibly could be, and there were so many questions to be asked about the handling of the investigation and the trial.

I drew my own conclusions, and at the very end Jane Robins drew hers. We agreed.

Though neither of us can ever know …

Library Loot

Library books have been coming home more quickly than they are going back, but it is so tempting to check my library account, see if anything has arrived, look for any good book I’ve spotted, see if anything I’ve been waiting for has come into stock, maybe order a book from one of my library lists

There are worse – and more expensive – sins!

But I have to catch up with myself because this week I took just one book – that I didn’t get on with – back, and I picked up four reservations.

My library ticket will only stretch so far!


The Sea Sisters by Lucy Clarke

“There are some currents in the relationship between sisters that run so dark and deep, it’s better for people on the surface never to know what’s beneath …”

I love stories about sisters, I love stories about the sea, and so I had to order this one.

The Promise by Ann Weisgarber

“I read Oscar’s letter again. He offered escape from my debts, from my mother’s rejection, and from certain poverty. He offered escape from myself.”

This went on to my ‘please put it into stock’ list when Lindsey wrote about it, and when I spotted it going into stock I jumped into the queue. I’ve nearly finished this one, and I’m impressed …

Dot by Araminta Hall

“Dot he thought, let her be Dot. because she is a beginning. A tiny dot of life that will grow into something wonderful.”

I liked Araminta Hall’s first novel, this looked like an interesting progression, and when Naomi wrote about Dot I just had to place an order. I’ve read just the first few chapters, and I’m intrigued …

The Curious Habits of Doctor Adams: a 1950’s Murder Mystery by Jane Robins

“Was Mrs Gertrude Hullet murdered at her luxurious 15-room house on Beachy Head? detectives are trying to establish the cause of the 50-year-old widow’s sudden death …”

I was impresses with Jane Robins’ first book – an account of the brides in the bath case that mixed intrigue, biography and social history – and so when I saw she had written another, about a case I knew nothing about, I ordered it straight away.

I’m quite taken with the fact that my library loot is colour coordinated this week.

And I’m pleased that I’ll be able to take a couple of books back this weekend, because there are already more reservations waiting …

The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath by Jane Robins

 In June 1915 Britain was at war, and yet a different story filled the front pages of the newspapers and captured the public imagination. The story of the trial of George Smith. He stood accused of marrying a young woman and then drowning her as she bathed. On three occasions.

The three young women were swiftly dubbed “the brides in the bath”, and it is they, not George Smith and not the Magnificent Spilsbury, who are at the heart of this book.

Bessie Mundy. Alice Burnham. Margaret Lofty.

Three very different women, but all three feared that they had been left on the shelf, and wanted nothing more than to secure a husband. That was the greatest possible achievement open to them.

But the losses of war  and a history of higher male infant mortality meant that potential husbands were in short supply. Maybe that’s why neither Bessie nor Alice nor Margaret resisted when their new husband  pulled them away from their family and friends, insisted they make a will, encouraged them to take out life insurance…

Jane Robins makes each of their stories compelling, and paints the picture of the society that they lived in perfectly.

Yet at the same time there is something timeless about their stories. Bessie, Alice and Margaret all wanted to be loved, wanted someone to put them first. And now, as then, that desire can make women vulnerable.

It took some time for their deaths to be linked. But Alice’s father was suspicious, and so was the landlord in whose house Margaret died. And eventually the diligent Inspector Arthur Neil would put together a case and make an arrest.

He uncovered George Smith’s history too. Seven marriages. Women manipulated and then abandoned. A chilling, and horribly believable, picture of a psychopath was painted.

By the time of the trial the police had 121 witnesses for the prosecution.

But an important question remained. Three deaths had been ruled to be accidents by coroners, without any suggestion at all that there had been foul play. How had he done it?

The crucial evidence came from one of a new kind of expert witness – a forensic scientist. Bernard Spilsbury, of London’s St Mary’s Hospital, had drawn attention when he gave evidence at the trial of the notorious Dr Crippen. At George Smith’s trial he drew conclusions from goose-flesh and a clutched bar of soap, and put forward a theory of “sudden immersion.”  

George Smith was convicted on the strength of that evidence and executed on 13 August 1915.

Jane Robins tells the stories of the trial, and of Spilsbury’s rise, simply and clearly. It is clear that she has done a great deal of research, and she uses it well.

She makes it clear that the evidence is flawed, and that far too much credence is given to expert opinion.

Impossible to forget though the extraordinary similarities between the three deaths: women taken to distant lodgings, where their husband made certain that a  bath was installed, and then pressed to visit a local doctor with complaints of a minor ailment, and encouraged to take a bath while their husband ran an errand …

The moral dilemma of what to do when you have a firm belief of guilt but there are unanswered questions, and maybe insufficient proof, looms large.

There were so many questions, there was so much to think about, and yet the book concluded with the story of the rest of Spilsbury’s career, and his eventual decline as the world moved on.

That unbalanced things for me. The social history, the extraordinary case, the stories of the three women and the man they married were enough, and they should have been the main focus. The forensic scientist’s story was interesting, but it came from a different angle. Two possible books fought for attention and only one could win.

And so I have to say that The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath is flawed, and maybe not quite as good as it could have been.

But it is still fascinating, informative, thought-provoking, and definitely well worth picking up.

Library Loot

It’s a very long time since my last confession Library Loot p0st.

No particular reason, I just slipped out of the habit.

But this week’s books want to have their moment of glory.

And I want to say, look at these lovely books! Do you know them? Have you read them? Are you curious about them?

Purely by chance, the four books that I bought home cover two world wars and the years between them. So I’ll introduce them chronologically:

The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath by Jane Robins

“Bessie Mundy, Alice Burnham and Margaret Lofty are three women with one thing in common. They are spinsters and are desperate to marry. Each woman meets a smooth-talking stranger who promises her a better life. She falls under his spell, and becomes his wife. But marriage soon turns into a terrifying experience. In the dark opening months of the First World War, Britain became engrossed by ‘The Brides in the Bath’ trial. The horror of the killing fields of the Western Front was the backdrop to a murder story whose elements were of a different sort. This was evil of an everyday, insidious kind, played out in lodging houses in seaside towns, in the confines of married life, and brought to a horrendous climax in that most intimate of settings — the bathroom. The nation turned to a young forensic pathologist, Bernard Spilsbury, to explain how it was that young women were suddenly expiring in their baths. This was the age of science. In fiction, Sherlock Holmes applied a scientific mind to solving crimes. In real-life, would Spilsbury be as infallible as the ‘great detective’?”

It did cross my mond that this could be a case of “Mr Whicher was successful, so let’s see if we can do the same thing again.” But even if it is, the case is one I’m curious about, the period fascinates me, and it does look like a very well put together book.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

“‘Fear no more the heat of the sun.’ Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s fourth novel, offers the reader an impression of a single June day in London in 1923. Clarissa Dalloway, the wife of a Conservative member of parliament, is preparing to give an evening party, while the shell-shocked Septimus Warren Smith hears the birds in Regent’s Park chattering in Greek. There seems to be nothing, except perhaps London, to link Clarissa and Septimus. She is middle-aged and prosperous, with a sheltered happy life behind her; Smith is young, poor, and driven to hatred of himself and the whole human race. Yet both share a terror of existence, and sense the pull of death.”

This is going to be my first book for Anbolyn’s Reading Between The Wars project. I have my own copy, but it’s old and tatty and the library had a lovely, new Oxford World’s Classics edition.

Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany

“It is 1934, the Great War is long over and the next is yet to come. Amid billowing clouds of dust and information, the government ‘Better Farming Train’ slides through the wheat fields and small towns of Australia, bringing expert advice to those living on the land. The train is on a crusade to persuade the country that science is the key to successful farming, and that productivity is patriotic. In the swaying cars an unlikely love affair occurs between Robert Pettergree, a man with an unusual taste for soil, and Jean Finnegan, a talented young seamstress with a hunger for knowledge. In an atmosphere of heady scientific idealism, they marry and settle in the impoverished Mallee with the ambition of proving that a scientific approach to cultivation can transform the land. But after seasons of failing crops, and with a new World War looming, Robert and Jean are forced to confront each other, the community they have inadvertently destroyed, and the impact of their actions on an ancient and fragile landscape.”

I saw this on the returns trolley and I thought, “Laura!”  She read this book for Orange January and wrote about it a few days ago. I liked the look of it – tables and pictures in the text are always good in my book – and it was only a little book, so I decided that I would read it too.

Stratton’s War by Laura Wilson

“London, June 1940. When the body of silent screen star Mabel Morgan is found impaled on railings in Fitzrovia, the coroner rules her death as suicide, but DI Ted Stratton of the CID is not convinced. Despite opposition from his superiors, he starts asking questions, and it becomes clear that Morgan’s fatal fall from a high window may have been the work of one of Soho’s most notorious gangsters. MI5 agent Diana Calthrop, working with senior official Sir Neville Apse, is leading a covert operation when she discovers that her boss is involved in espionage. She must tread carefully – Apse is a powerful man, and she can’t risk threatening the reputation of the Secret Service. Only when Stratton’s path crosses Diana’s do they start to uncover the truth. But as they discover Morgan’s connection with Apse and their mutual links to a criminal network and a secretive pro-fascist organisation, they begin to realise that the intrigues of the Secret Service are alarmingly similar to the machinations of war-torn London’s underworld.”

I’ve liked Laura Wilson’s books in the past, and I’ve heard good things about this one, so I always intended to pick it up one day. A few weeks ago I read about the third book in this series and it looked wonderful, so I decided that it was time to make a start.

Have you read any of these? What did you think? Which book should I go for next? And which are you curious to know more about?

And what did you find in the library this week?

Do go and tell Claire!