The Night was a Bright Moonlight and I Could See a Man Quite PlainArchie Mac and Martin Chandler |
Author: Haigh, Gideon
Rating: 4 stars
This is the story of a cricketing murder. Well at least a cricket bat was the murder weapon and the killer was the son of a famous cricketer.
G.F. Vernon was the famous cricketer. He was one of the team captained by Hon, Ivo Bligh in 1882/83 that took home the little Ashes urn that England and Australia have played for ever since.
Bligh famously married one of the well do to Australian ladies who presented him with the little urn. However he was not the only one who married a wealthy Australian girl. G.F. Vernon’s attractive bride was also from a wealthy family. The couple had one child, George Vernon, who is the villain of this story.
As per form, Gideon Haigh’s writing style is faultless and his prose is a pleasure to peruse. The story is also educational. For instance he provides an informative explanation of what a ‘Remittance Man’ was. Basically, when a wealthy family had a problem young relative they would send them abroad with a monthly stipend. Usually these young men would live from payment to payment, gambling and drinking away their lives.
George was a particularly indolent person. He was sent by the family to South Africa, Canada and finally Australia. It was in the country of his mother’s birth where George fell foul of the law.
Haigh’s research is thorough and his description of the court case is excitingly relayed, especially as at the time, if found guilty George would have been hanged. Not knowing the result makes for an interesting read and I devoured the whole book in one afternoon.
The book is also well illustrated which mostly adds to the narrative. A minor criticism with some of the illustrations is their size. Some are simply too small to read the reproduced font. This is a minor issue, and doesn’t materially detract from what is a first rate story.
Haigh writes that he researched and wrote this story while sitting at his computer, due to the Covid lockdown. It might actually be the only positive I have been able to extract from this melancholy time in history.
This is a fine read and is recommended for the cricket book lover as well as anyone who enjoys a rollicking good yarn.
For some reason I had it in my head that this one was a novel, and only tangentially concerned with cricket. Ordinarily therefore I wouldn’t have bothered with it, and the only reason I did was because it had been written by Gideon Haigh, a man who is, of course, as good a writer on cricket as there is.
Perhaps it was the wording of the sub title, An Edwardian Cricket Murder, that fooled me, as it does rather sound like something that might have come from the pen of Dorothy L Sayers or Agatha Christie. In fact however there is nothing fictional in this, Haigh’s lockdown project, as he unravels the story behind a murder case from rural Queensland dating back to 1910.
As far as the cricketing connections are concerned there are two. Firstly, and rather less importantly, the murder weapon was a cricket bat. More significant is the fact that the alleged perpetrator, George Vernon, was the son of a famous man. George Vernon senior played Rugby Union for England and, once, in an Ashes Test in 1882/83.
Never the subject of a biography and largely forgotten today Vernon senior’s life is the subject of Haigh’s first chapter. It was not however a long existence. Already widowed by 1902 he died in Ghana at the age of 46 thereby making an orphan of young George, who was then 16. The Vernons had no significant wealth and whilst family members stepped in to provide some support George junior had a difficult and peripatetic existence before ending up at the Doondi sheep station near St George where, in September 1910, a man named John Neil was killed.
The evidence pointed strongly, albeit not conclusively, at Vernon. He was arrested and charged and his trial took place the following year. Despite having lost his way in life Vernon still attracted sufficient sympathy for his plight to enable a top Queensland KC, Arthur Feez, to be engaged to lead his defence. Feez’s personal diary is one of the sources that Haigh was able to refer to as he put the story together.
The account of the trial is a fascinating one, harking back to days gone by when Judges were often biased, usually rude to the defence advocates and, sometimes, not very bright*. That was not an accusation that could be levelled at Feez who, despite suffering from the effects of dengue fever during the trial, did a fine job in order to secure his client’s acquittal.
After the trial Vernon was to return to England to the home of his maternal grandparents and, perhaps, to live happily ever after? Not a bit of it as, tragically, on 21 July 1911 he went into a cubicle at Victoria Station with a gun and took his own life. Shortly before that there had been a twist to the story which, as the Mac has chosen not to do so in his review, I am not going to reveal. I will therefore limit myself to a not entirely cryptic clue and reference a reasonably well known English murder case from 1949, arising out of which Donald Hume faced trial for the murder of Stanley Setty.
All in all this is a fascinating account of an old fashioned whodunnit, the sort of case that made this genre of storytelling so interesting in the days before advances in the standard of police work and forensic science techniques took a great deal of the intrigue out of the criminal law. Having noted that Haigh has, I see, strayed into this genre in the past so I will certainly be giving A Scandal in Bohemia and Certain Admissions the once over, but perhaps not until after I have finally been able to track down a copy of An Eye on Cricket.
*My favourite line in the book is Feez’s admonishment to the Judge in Vernon’s case “Your Honour’s mind must be very dense” – it is the sort of thought that occurred to me often enough during my own career as a litigator but, sadly if unsurprisingly, I certainly never had the courage to say anything like it.