A very English scandal Sex, lies and a murder plot in the houses of Parliament

John Preston, 1953-

Book - 2016

"A behind-the-scenes look at the desperate, scandalous private life of a British member of Parliament and champion manipulator, and the history-making trial that exposed his dirty secrets to the world. As a member of Parliament and leader of the Liberal Party in the 1960s and 70s, Jeremy Thorpe's bad behavior snuck under the radar for years. Police and politicians alike colluded to protect one of their own. At the start of the 1970s, Thorpe was the most popular and charismatic politician in the country, poised to hold the balance of power in a coalition government. But Jeremy Thorpe was a man with a secret. His homosexual affairs and harassment of past partners--as well as his propensity for lying and embezzlement--only escalated ...as he evaded punishment. Until a dark night on the moor with an ex-lover, a dog, and a hired gun led to consequences that even his charm and power couldn't help him escape. Thorpe's climactic trial at the Old Bailey in London was immediately dubbed the 'Trial of the Century.' It was the first time that a leading British politician had stood trial on a murder charge. It was the first time that a murder plot had been hatched in the House of Commons. And it was the first time that a prominent public figure had been exposed as a philandering gay man, in an era when homosexuality had only just become legal. By the time the trial was over, Britain would never be the same again. With the pacing and drama of a thriller, A Very English Scandal is an extraordinary story of hypocrisy, deceit and betrayal at the heart of the British establishment"--

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True crime stories
New York : Other Press [2016]
Main Author
John Preston, 1953- (author)
Physical Description
xi, 339 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (page [324]) and index.
  • A dinner at the House of Commons
  • The postcard
  • The eye of Urse
  • Bunnies
  • Mr Bessell goes to Dublin
  • The creature
  • This filthy subject
  • Bessell pulls another rabbit out of his hat
  • The blessings of family life
  • Two pledges
  • Unexpected developments
  • A happy and joyous occasion
  • Shooting a sick dog
  • The ultimate solution
  • Doomed
  • Back to Black
  • The price of a peerage
  • From bad to worse
  • Big swamp
  • A death unforeseen
  • A simple plan
  • Things fall apart
  • Bessellised
  • The man from Canada
  • Death on the moor
  • Vive les trois mousequetaires!
  • A bloody mess
  • Damned lies
  • Judas
  • Ice cold in Minehead
  • Waiting in the wings
  • Overture and beginners
  • Ripped to shreds
  • The greatest show on earth
  • The judgements of Cantley
  • Awkward bows
  • Postscript.
Review by New York Times Review

NOT ALL TRUE-CRIME books are created equal. Some explore the criminal mind. Others focus on the lives of the victims. And then there are the ones that look beyond the crime to the historical period and social conditions in which it's rooted. But one thing can be said for them all: True crime is hardly ever boring. THE NOTORIOUS MRS. CLEM: Murder and Money in the Gilded Age (Johns Hopkins University, $34.95) has an intriguing point of reference: The post-Civil War era, when the economy was unregulated, speculators abounded and con artists had a field day. Nancy Clem was one of those scoundrels, and Wendy Gamber, the author of this lively study, seems to admire her skills. So do I. If only she hadn't murdered her business partners. Although by 1868 the formerly quiet town of Indianapolis was becoming "a city of strangers," nearby Cold Spring was a more inviting place to settle - except for that bloodsoaked patch of ground on the west bank of the White River where the bodies of Jacob and Janey Young were found on the morning of Sept. 13. To an excitable reporter for The Indianapolis Sentinel, it was "a picture of grisly horror seldom seen except upon the battlefield." Jacob and Janey Young had been great friends of Frank and Nancy Clem, who lived in their genteel neighborhood and shared their "exemplary social qualities." But Jacob and Nancy had something else in common - a good head for business. As "street brokers" working outside an established firm, the friends dealt in stocks, mortgages and promissory notes. And if some of their transactions seemed a bit dicey, they made plenty of money for themselves and their clients. The first ones, anyway, because what the partners were shilling turned out to be an early, if not the earliest, Ponzi scheme. The murder of a business partner doesn't sound very sexy. But Gamber raises a provocative issue when she studies the era's disapproving attitude toward any woman who dared to benefit from the commercial opportunities of a postwar world - especially if that commerce happened to be illegal. At Mrs. Clem's fifth murder trial, court attorneys were still exchanging fierce arguments over "the respectability of 'working women.'" To be sure, Mrs. Clem speculated in dubious investments and openly consorted with cardsharps, forgers and other scam artists. Then again, as Gamber dryly notes, "Perhaps a woman known for eagerly scanning the real estate pages was bored with domestic life." "Writers don't pick their subjects out of the clear blue," we are reminded by Beverly Lowry, author of the heartfelt WHO KILLED THESE GIRLS? Cold Case: The Yogurt Shop Murders (Knopf, $27.95). What moved her to write about this crime, which was never definitively solved, was, she says, "the uncertainty of the parents of the dead girls, the not-knowing they might well have to accept as their lifelong fate." Her own life, she explains, is clouded by just such uncertainty because her son was killed, over 30 years ago, by a hit-and-run driver who remains unidentified. Lowry lays out the basics of the case in a chillingly concise fashion: "Girls. Kids. Bound, gagged. Naked. Stacked. Burned to the bone." The city of Austin was still a laid-back place 1991 - until the sixth day of the last month of the year, when someone assaulted four teenage girls who worked at the I Can't Believe It's Yogurt (ICBY) store, shot them and set their bodies on fire. Lowry works the case from a human rather than a forensic angle. She even deals sympathetically with the lead detective, whom the case had rendered "obsessed, single-minded, snarly, socially incapacitated and a total loser as both husband and father," according to a speech he gave in 2014 at a convention of the Texas Citizens Police Academy. By 2009, when Lowry became interested, there had been years of appeals, reversals and higher-court decisions concerning the four young men who were eventually charged with the crime, and retrials were being lined up. A final suspect was still at large in 2010, when he was shot dead while running away from a routine traffic stop. This is the kind of case a writer takes up in the hope that she might be of some help. Just as Lowry chose to revisit the yogurt shop murders out of compassion for the families of the victims, Ethan Brown decided to write MURDER IN THE BAYOU: Who Killed the Women Known as the Jeff Davis 8? (Scribner, $26) because he was concerned about the troubled little parish in Louisiana where the eight victims lived. Brown is a man on a mission, and his aim, which rings loud and clear, is to bring attention to the interstate drug traffic that cuts unimpeded through Jefferson Davis Parish and expose the decades of police corruption and incompetence that keeps this traffic moving. The eight victims were killed between 2005 and 2009 by a person or persons unknown - although the author has come up with a likely suspect. They were ah prostitutes and drug addicts, which made them vulnerable and defenseless, expendable in a jurisdiction that's centrally positioned along the route of the Gulf Coast drug trade. Brown is especially enlightening when it comes to this region of swampland, where the Spanish banished the original Acadians and the land is currently fouled by oil and gas refineries, coal-fueled power plants and petrochemical facilities that "release high levels of cancer-causing chemicals into the environment, contaminating fish and leaking toxins into groundwater." Brown gives the victims more respectful attention than they probably got in life, and he believes he has identified their killer in Frankie Richard, "a onetime pimp, stripclub owner, drug dealer, meth addict and muscle for hire." His contempt for Richard is palpable, but the brunt of his crusader's fury is aimed at law enforcement: "There were credible reports of tampered and destroyed evidence, unethical cash deals, an epidemic of sexual assaults in the jail, whistle-blowers pilloried." Sheriff Ricky Edwards is one of the people Brown claims to have the goods on. Elected to office after his predecessor was indicted in a federal investigation into widespread corruption in the parish, he immediately got to work by adopting a predatory practice of traffic stops and searches that resulted in the town being slapped with numerous civil rights lawsuits. More disastrous was his dismantling of the drug-interdiction program that had become the last line of defense against the traffickers. He even got rid of Armin, the department's drug-sniffing dog. "You can buy him or we kill him," he is said to have told the dog's handler, who paid the sheriff $10,000 to save the German shepherd's life. Unlike their bloody-minded American cousins, British authors of true crime seem more inspired by dirty old men with nasty little secrets, although Machiavellian young men are also good for a book. But the fondest desire of British crime writers is to locate some wildly eccentric person, preferably of noble blood, caught in some mortifying situation. Someone like John Charles Wallop, the third earl of Portsmouth, the subject of THE TRIALS OF THE KING OF HAMPSHIRE: Madness, Secrecy and Betrayal in Georgian England (One World, $30), Elizabeth Foyster's extensively researched and gracefully written account of how a member of the House of Lords became the subject of a legal investigation called a Commission of Lunacy. The proceedings had been initiated several years earlier by the earl's brother, who feared John Charles's "bizarre" behavior might impact his own future inheritance of the family's fortune and estates. Stuff and nonsense. The real reason was that the childless earl had recently remarried and Mary Ann Hanson, his much younger wife, was capable of bearing him an heir. Or even an heir and a spare. Lord Byron presented written testimony that he had seen no sign of lunacy when he served in the wedding party. But in the autumn of 1822, when Byron was out of the country, Portsmouth's 22-year-old nephew successfully petitioned for the commission. The financial stakes were higher for Mary Ann and her grasping family, since she had given birth to a girl earlier that year and the earl had to be ruled sane in order for the child to be legitimate. Portsmouth, it should not surprise us to learn, was close to tears throughout the proceedings. Just when the machinations of these two rapacious clans begin to make your blood boil, Foyster switches to a straightforward biographical treatment of John Charles, third earl of Portsmouth, who deserves our attention and our sympathies. Compassion, of which he got precious little in his life, is exactly what Portsmouth receives from Foyster. And from Jane Austen's mother. As a child, he was boarded and tutored in the rectory home of the (as yet unborn) novelist, where he was judged to be simple-minded but teachable, like the Austens' own son George. To make matters worse, he stuttered badly and was bullied at boarding school, not only for his stammer but for wetting his bed and being such a poor scholar. Needless to say, he never went on to Eton. Foyster is a historian who studies family dynamics, which might explain why she seems so sympathetic to her subject, a grown man, but so very much like a child. No actual murder is committed in A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament (Other Press, $27.95), but political suicide runs rampant. John Preston has resurrected the 1979 trial of Jeremy Thorpe, the charismatic (and secretly gay) leader of the Liberal Party, whose career was upended by Britain's stringent laws against homosexuality and his own malfeasance. Thorpe was such a charmer, he seemed to think he was immune from close scrutiny. But, the author argues, "Thorpe must have realized how vulnerable he would be" after the "paranoia and media scrutiny" that followed the 1963 political scandal in which John Profumo, the Conservative government's secretary of state for war, was obliged to resign after lying to Parliament about his affair with a prostitute. Thorpe was besotted with a 19-year-old stableboy named Norman Josiffe, whom he cleaned up and kept in a long-term clandestine relationship that suited him but asked too much of his mentally fragile paramour. At one point, Josiffe made the mistake of sending a blackmail letter to Thorpe's formidable mother, threatening to expose their relationship. To his credit, Thorpe didn't immediately hire a hit man to plug the blackmailer, although it did eventually come to that. Thorpe found numerous jobs for his "bunny," but Josiffe usually skipped out on them, carrying a bundle of incriminating love letters for security. He was, however, briefly happy in a Trappist monastery, which should have told Thorpe something. Preston has written this page-turner like a political thriller, with urgent dialogue, well-staged scenes, escalating tension and plenty of Cliffhangers, especially once the trial begins. But no matter how hard he tries to convince us of Thorpe's "magnetic personality," his central character comes off as selfish, arrogant and manipulative, expecting his close friend, Peter Bessell, another Liberal M.P., to clean up after him. Bessell, who seems to be the truly tragic figure in this unsavory affair, is so loyal that he agrees to commit perjury and sets himself up as a possible suspect in the murder plot: "The only explanation Bessell himself could offer is that he was flattered to be asked. Despite everything, he yearned to feel the warmth of Thorpe's approval." So many true crimes, it seems, demand that victims be charmed blind by the predators who rob them of their fortunes, their virtue or their lives. I'm wondering what some beady-eyed bank officer at J.P. Morgan Chase might make of Frederick Warren, who strolls into the Bank of England in 1873 and passes off a forged bill of exchange - one of many, as it turns out. In Nicholas Booth's jaunty caper, THE THIEVES OF THREADNEEDLE STREET: The Incredible True Story of the American Forgers Who Nearly Broke the Bank of England (Pegasus, $27.95), no one thinks to question Mr. Warren, who "had given no permanent address, provided no references nor any particular credentials in any shape or form," but was somehow allowed to make off with the equivalent of eight million pounds in today's currency. Strange as it seems, until the late 19th century, "the whole system was based on trust." Ladies and gentlemen were simply not expected to do such things and generally did not. But after the Civil War, when many of the traditional verities seem to have broken down, a certain lassitude crept into the American ethic, allowing the professional con artist to stride upon the stage. The whole point about being a con man (or woman) was the ability to inspire confidence in your victims. That described Nancy Clem in 1868 in Indianapolis, and it describes Austin Biron Bidwell, "an international man of mystery" whose many aliases included "Frederick Warren." His partner, George Macdonnell, was thought to be "one of the most slippery con men in the world." There were five Bidwell brothers all told, but only George and Joseph joined Austin in practicing the art of the con. When William Pinkerton, son of the legendary detective Allan Pinkerton, came face to face with Austin in Havana, the criminal shared more of his personal history. But, as Pinkerton later discovered, it was mostly a pack of lies. Apparently, a con man is constitutionally unable to tell the truth. The brothers established themselves by working a long firm fraud (selling wholesale goods acquired on credit) in Cincinnati. But the family business didn't flourish until they moved the operation to Chicago ("the sort of town where you could not help becoming involved in crime") and they honed their skills by selling real estate they didn't own. Although the Bidwells were occasionally caught dead to rights, these scoundrels were adept at eluding justice through bribery, impersonating one another or simply walking off into the sunset - and eventually to New York, in those days serving as Boss Tweed's piggy bank. If it makes readers feel better to hear it, Austin Bidwell announced that "we did not save a dollar of the millions secured from the Bank of England." As for me, I'm more fascinated by the gang's meticulously detailed plot to engage in this plunder, and by Austin's frequently surprising and seemingly out-of-character conduct. In the course of pulling off the heist, Austin was forced to bamboozle a gentleman banker named Col. Peregrine Madgwick Francis. On the stand, Austin took the extraordinary step of apologizing to Colonel Francis for causing him to be ridiculed in court and in the banking world. Once these "dude" thieves, as Pinkerton called them, were put away, Booth notes that the detective became "almost nostalgic for this vanishing breed of gentlemen who were defined by their relative intelligence and sophistication." I'm with him. MARILYN STASIO writes the Crime column for the Book Review.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [November 20, 2016]
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In 1979, Jeremy Thorpe, a popular member of Parliament, stood trial over claims that he hired an assassin to murder model Norman Scott, who claimed to be Thorpe's ex-lover. In this addictive true crime account of one of Britain's greatest political scandals, London-based novelist Preston (The Dig) chronicles Thorpe's early, secretive love life, at a time when sodomy was still illegal, and his exposure. Thorpe is portrayed as repressed and concerned with his public image and political career; he involved colleagues in schemes lasting years to silence Scott. Though Scott had a cache of Thorpe's incriminating letters as evidence, Thorpe always maintained that they were never lovers. Drawing from Scott's memoir and documents from Peter Bessell, a political colleague of Thorpe's with a checkered business past, Preston blends factual with farcical, recounting, for example, a horrifying incident with Thorpe's helicopter and a protester standing too close to the rotor blade-a huge clump of hair seen on the ground turned out to be a muddy wig blown off. The trial near the end is riveting, with Thorpe's lawyer demolishing Scott's and Bessell's credibility; Thorpe was acquitted. Preston caps off the dramatic account by discussing the widely held belief that the acquittal was an establishment cover-up, even though Thorpe never regained his career, and died in 2014. Though knee-deep in politics, scandal, and betrayal, the book also conveys the sobering, grim reality of lives destroyed by dirty politics and homophobic culture. (Oct.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

In his narrative of the scandal that engulfed Great Britain's Houses of Parliament in the 1970s, Preston (The Dig) delivers an operatic account about hypocrisy, deceit, and betrayal at the heart of the government's establishment. The scandal centered on Jeremy Thorpe, a parliamentarian since 1959, who had been covering up a homosexual affair he had begun with Norman Scott in 1962. His relationship with Scott, an on-again, off-again riding instructor and model, took bizarre twists, involving fellow members of his party, lying, payoffs, embezzlement, and a murder plot. As leader of the Liberal Party, Thorpe was poised in 1974 to hold the balance of power in a coalition government headed by Edward Heath. Events climaxed in 1976 when Thorpe was tried for conspiracy to murder. Despite credible evidence to the contrary, Thorpe was acquitted through his attorney's discrediting the testimony of prosecution witnesses and the judge's extrajudicial interference favorable to the defense. Dominic Sandbrook's Seasons in the Sun provides an excellent context in which the events occurred. VERDICT This book, which is based on extensive interviews with principal players and reads like a thriller, is recommended for those with a penchant for 1970s British political culture.-Glen Edward Taul, Campbellsville Univ. Lib., KY © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Preston (The Dig, 2016, etc.) revisits the 1970s scandal involving Jeremy Thorpe, Member of Parliament for North Devon and leader of Britains Liberal Party.In what could be a juicy, salacious tale, the author chronicles what seems to have been a brief encounter dragged out over more than 20 years in the paranoid mind of the Parliamentarian and his pathetic victim. Thorpe met Norman Josiffe, a confused, mentally unstable young man, at Thorpes friends home, where Josiffe was working in the stables. Thorpe gave him his card and an invitation to turn to him if he ever had problems with VanBrecht Van de Vater, Josiffes employer. Soon, Norman went to Thorpe intending to return a collection of insurance letters Van de Vater had saved. For their first meeting, in 1961, Thorpe invited Josiffe to stay with him at his mothers house, where they began a short-lived affair. Josiffes life comes across as a mess of mental institutions, prescription drug addiction, and constant attempts to recover his National Insurance health card. In England, employers pay the premium for the card; in Josiffes case, responsibility lay first with Van de Vater and then Thorpe. Neither of them bothered to pay, and Josiffes fragile mind and desperate economic situation drove him to desperation. Enter Thorpes MP colleague, Peter Bessell, who stepped in to protect Thorpe by paying small sums to Josiffe. In Parliament, there is an unwritten law that a mans private life is his own business. Thus, Josiffes accusations were swept under the table by everyone. Thorpe and Bessell, desperate for money for the party and themselves, found a savior in Jack Hayward, a Bahamas-based millionaire who provided them with cash. Still, Thorpes paranoia about Josiffe grew, and he proposed a murder plot. It was an absurd plan, but apparently not absurd enough to throw the affair into the news and the courts. Indeed, many readers may wonder why its necessary to revisit the whole episode now. A story of establishment and judicial misconduct thats no longer pertinentor even interesting. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.