Great and Horrible News (Blessin Adams) – Book Review

Death is one of a handful of things guaranteed to happen to everyone (like taxes and liking at least one Taylor Swift song). The fascination with decay and suffering has been part of the human condition since Cain killed Abel, with literature exploring both our collective relationship with death and our drive to pathologise and understand why people kill other people (e.g. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood).

Great and Horrible News: Murder and Mayhem in Early Modern Britain by Blessin Adams, from Harper Collins’ William Collins imprint, is the latest to join this grimly fascinating canon, with a collection of true crime tales pulled from the latter half of the past millennium, and a cultural explanation of what could have caused them to occur in the first place. At once an intriguing true crime examination of historical crime and a sociological dive into Britain’s history, Adams does a stellar job of introducing a nonet of little-known crimes, running the gamut from suicide to child abuse to murder, that while not for the faint of heart, quickly become engrossing to read.

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It’s a haunting testament to Adams’ writing that the wide variety of crimes covered in Great and Horrible News each stand out in their own way, whether it’s the legal theatrics of a man fighting against his accusations of murder, the lengths that a well-off family goes to to avoid being blamed for their patriarch’s mysterious demise, or the way that a nobleman’s drowning is given posthumous honour due to his status. Writing about such disparate crimes and making each of the nine stories feel as engaging as if they were fictional tales takes a real skill, and Adams’ history in the police helps hone this skill. Several cases go from grisly to outright macabre, and while these moments might be a tad too grim for even some hardened true crime readers, they remain compelling enough to keep turning the page.

Adams isn’t afraid to delve into the wider societal issues that influence each of Great and Horrible News‘ crimes, namely the role of class in establishing different rules for different kinds of offenders, and the role of gender in perceptions of crime. The latter proves especially prevalent – whether it’s the vitriol aimed at a dangerously negligent midwife, or the way that the concept of one’s reputation persists, and in some cases triumphs, even death itself, for good and for ill. The fact that the family of a young woman is relieved that her death is treated as a murder, as opposed to a suicide, speaks volumes (Adams helpfully contributes to the narrative that suicide – or felo de se to use the historical nomenclature – was only decriminalised in 1961).

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In the novel’s most resonate chapter, we learn about Elizabeth, accused of murder after a stillbirth, and while that might seem an outlandish claim, it’s more than worth noting that in 2019, California resident Chelsea Becker was charged for murder after a stillborn birth; the same prosecutor sent Adora Perez to prison for four years for the same perceived offense. From 2006-2020, almost 1300 women were charged and prosecuted for infanticide after miscarrying, and in some states in the US, bans of early-term abortions and restrictions of reproductive healthcare are widespread and rampant.

In the UK, much is the same, with pregnant people investigated for miscarriages and abortions strictly regulated. In a world that has just revoked Roe v Wade, the fact that such a historical attitude still exists, and, more worryingly, is on the rise in the modern day, that makes Great and Horrible News such timely reading and well worth picking up beyond its grisly premise.

Great and Horrible News is out now from William Collins.

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