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Fresh Blood

Name: Anna Mazzola

Title of Book: The Unseeing

'‘The Unseeing’ is a wonderful palette of dark shades and vivid smells'

London, 1837. Sarah Gale, a seamstress and mother, is sentenced to hang for her role in the murder of Hannah Brown on the eve of her wedding.

After the verdict has been handed down to Sarah, she petitions for mercy. Solicitor, Edmund Fleetwood is appointed to investigate and consider whether justice has been done. Idealistic, but struggling with his own demons, Edmund is determined to seek out the truth. Yet Sarah refuses to help him, neither lying nor adding anything to the evidence gathered in court. Edmund knows she's hiding something, but needs to discover just why she's maintaining her silence. For how can it be that someone would willingly go to their own death?

Firstly, I must raise my hand and admit to not being a huge fan of Historical novels, crime or otherwise. However, now and again a novel sounds so intriguing to me that I have to put my prejudices aside – this I had to do for ‘The Unseeing’. Based on a true case back in 1837, this attracted me as I enjoy a certain blend of fiction woven with fact. How much fact? Well, Mazzola herself tells you that at the back of her book, but by all accounts this case was a huge ‘cause célèbre’ as the newspapers slowly hollered about the findings of body parts in different areas of London.

Mazzola, taking on the role of the seamstress of fiction, slowly unpicks a tapestry of lies and subterfuge. The silence within these pages speak volumes. There is a strange and enchanting relationship between Edmund and Sarah. To begin with he sees himself as Sarah’s messiah – but looks more like a puppy with its new owner. It is only as the week’s progress and Edmund nears the date he must submit his findings, does he begin to despair of Sarah’s constant litany of lies, half-truths and silences. Edmund’s determination to chip away to the truth is his own turning point – and it is here that he finds his inner strength.

The scents and tastes of a grimy old London waft from Mazzola’s writing, plunging one headlong in to a London one hopes will never exist again. The poverty and disease is abhorrent and it isn’t surprising that the average age of an adult was expected to make it only to their thirties – and that was if they were lucky. The descriptions of Sarah’s incarceration in Newgate have a claustrophobic feel about them. On the other hand, Edmund comes from a privileged background, but prefers to forge his own path rather than ride on his father’s coattails.

This is an intelligent novel of two people who are more similar than they realise, who have been moulded by a dominating father and a mother who has been wronged. I am sure like me, Sarah and Edmund will be circling your mind long after turning that final page. ‘The Unseeing’ is a wonderful palette of dark shades and vivid smells. A very strong and assured debut.

Photo credit: Lou Abercrombie

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) ‘The Unseeing’ begins after the trial of Sarah Gale who is found guilty of being involved in the murder and dismemberment of Hannah Brown. She is sentenced to hang. This is based on fact. Although it caused a sensation back in 1837, these events have fallen into obscurity. How did you get to hear of this case and what was it about Sarah Gale’s trial that made you want to write about it?
I first heard about the Edgware Road Murder in ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’. The crime is mentioned only briefly, but grabbed my attention as it took place in Camberwell, not far from where I live, and was both peculiar and horrific. James Greenacre, the man accused the crime, had distributed the body parts about London: the torso beneath a paving slab off the Edgware Road, the head in Stepney Canal, and the legs in a ditch off the Coldharbour Lane. However, when I read the trial transcript, it was Sarah Gale’s story that gripped me. She was accused of helping Greenacre to conceal the gruesome murder of another woman and yet in both the Magistrates’ Court and the Old Bailey she said almost nothing. Given that she was facing the death sentence, I thought that was very strange. What was keeping her from speaking out?
2) I felt as though I was transported back to that time of 1837. Did you have to do a lot of research first before you could fictionalise this trial?
In short, yes! I started off with researching the case itself (through newspapers, the National Archives, Old Bailey online, convict records and pamphlets) and of course Newgate prison, where much of the action takes place. I read prison diaries and parliamentary commissions, I searched for sketches and pictures, and I studied plans of Newgate to get a sense of what that prison might have been like. In terms of the streets outside, I read journalistic works such as Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, the fiction of the period, guidebooks, newspaper reports, court reports, letters, and the journals and memoirs of those who lived in or visited London. This was all great fun. The tricky bit was stopping myself from researching and finishing the darned book.
3) Edmund Fleetwood is a young lawyer appointed to deal with Sarah’s appeal and re-examine the case. Despite being from different social backgrounds, Sarah and Edmund had similar upbringings, especially with their strict and unemotional fathers. What were your reasons for making these parallels?
It was important that Edmund felt some affinity for Sarah, as that is part of the reason he becomes drawn in to her story. And of course it is her telling her story. She knows which aspects of it to emphasise. For both characters, their fathers have been destructive, but their mothers are equally important.
4) It was quite astonishing to read that hanging was seen as such a pastime – and it was so prevalent that even young children were hanged. It is something one can’t imagine happening in the UK. Were you shocked at the numbers of people who were hanged for all different kinds of crime?
Yes, it was pretty savage by modern standards. In reality, children under the age of 16 weren’t hanged, even when the death sentence was handed down, but they were often transported, which was often little better. And the nature of the hangings was pretty extraordinary: until 1868 they took place in public, outside the prison, with children as well as adults attending for a fun day out. At James Greenacre’s hanging people bought ‘Greenacre tarts’ and blackberry wine, saving a bit of money for a piece of the hangman’s rope.
5) Newgate prison is well known for being a grim place and harbouring many criminals, many of whom suffered from mental illness. I felt the most harrowing part was not just the dark cells, but the coldness of the warders like Miss Sowerton. Have you met any Miss Sowerton’s during your time as a solicitor?
Fortunately no, I’ve never met anyone quite like her, although I have come across those who abuse their power. Miss Sowerton comes more from my reading of reports and fiction of the time. The warders had a rough life, living for the most part within the walls of the prison with damaged and dangerous or simply vulnerable people. Many of them must have become hardened in the way Sowerton had.
6) What are your plans for the next book? Will it feature Edmund Fleetwood or will it be a new set of characters?
I’m currently writing my second historical crime novel, set on the Isle of Skye in 1857, a few years after the Highland Clearances. It’s about a young woman called Audrey who goes to work for a collector of folklore and discovers that a young girl has gone missing, supposedly taken by spirits. Of course that’s not what she believes is going on. Again, the idea was sparked by a real case, but I haven’t tried to base it on the case in the same way that I did with ‘The Unseeing’. I haven’t ruled out returning to Sarah and Edmund, but there are other things I want to do first.
7) Are you a fan of crime fiction? If so, what are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you and you would wish to have on a deserted island?
I am. I try to read widely, across lots of genres, but I’ve always been drawn to stories that have a crime at their centre. They’re not always classed as crime fiction, but they're explorations of why people end up committing terrible acts. If I had to pick three, it would be Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. They are books I’ve read several times, and which I’m sure I’ll read many times more.