Illustrated True Crime: A Photographic Record, by Colin Wilson and Damon Wilson

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Colin and Damon Wilson have put together a large selection of photographs relating to crime, stretching from Franz Müller (familiar from Kate Colquhoun’s 2011 Mr Briggs’ Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain’s First Railway Murder) in 1864, to the World Trade Center attack in 2001.  A lot of these images will be familiar to anyone with an interest in true crime, but most readers should find something new.  Its 500 pages are arranged chronologically, the entries are international, and the emphasis is mostly on violence – Colin Wilson’s interest in organised crime and serial killers being particularly evident (though surprisingly no Dennis Nilsen).  It also occasionally betrays Wilson’s fondness for conspiracy theories.

For most the accompanying text is fairly brief and often simplistic, though some entries go into detail.  There are quite a few errors, indicating haste.  Muller’s victim is called Biggs rather than Briggs, which rather adds insult to injury for the poor man.  Similarly unfortunate is the misspelling of Timothy Evans, wrongfully hanged for murder, as ‘Evens’.  Gavrilo Princip, as we have heard in the coverage of the centenary of the First World War, died of TB in prison in 1918 and was not executed as the Wilsons state.  The Stephen Lawrence inquest was in 1997, not 1998.  There are occasionally assertions begging for support; thus while the authors accept that Evans’s wife was murdered by John Christie they think that Evans probably killed his child, but do not present evidence for the claim.

First published in 2002 as The Mammoth Book of Illustrated Crime in Constable & Robinson’s successful Mammoth series, it was republished by Parragon in 2006 without being revised.  The result is that some of the entries are dated.  For example, it is suggested that James Maybrick was Jack the Ripper based on a diary that had been ‘found’ recently.  This refers to The Diary of Jack the Ripper, which purported to have been written by Maybrick.  It appeared in 1992 and was published the following year, but has been largely discredited.  Slobodan Milošević’s death in March 2006 might have come too late for the new edition but Harold Shipman’s in 2004 did not, yet there is no indication of his suicide in the narrative accompanying his portrait.

The photographs are drawn from a narrow range of libraries, and it would have been a better book had the Wilsons’ picture researchers sought scarcer material.  Even so, despite the occasional unreliability in the commentary, and a rambling introduction, this is an absorbing compendium showing the seamier side of life.  The authors can find no coherent answers to existential questions posed by humanity’s frequent stupidity, cupidity and general inhumanity, but they have assembled a large number of pictures, reproduced on good-quality paper, for us to consider while being grateful that it’s not us in most of them.

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