REVIEW: The Lady in the Cellar, Sinclair McKay

Monday, 15 April 2019

Number 4 Euston Square was a respectable boarding house, well-kept and hospitable, like many others in Victorian London. But beneath this very ordinary veneer, there was a murderous darkness at the heart of this particular house. On 8th May 1879, the corpse of former resident, Matilda Hacker, was uncovered by chance in the coal cellar. The investigation that followed this macabre discovery stripped bare the shadow-side of Victorian domesticity, throwing the lives of everyone within into an extraordinary and destructive maelstrom. For someone in Number 4 Euston Square must have had full knowledge of what had happened to Matilda Hacker. Someone in that house had killed her. How could the murderer prove so amazingly elusive?

As a lover of true-crime narrative non-fiction, I jumped at the chance to read The Lady in the Cellar, because what is better than true-crime? Victorian true-crime, of course. The image that I have crafted in my mind of the time-period (the grey, smoggy one) just lends itself so easily to the genre - all dark corners, shadowy alleyways, eyes always watching...
I mean, what could be better?
Living in the period must have been like constantly living in an episode of Scooby Doo. But, one in which the monsters were real and the chance of dying from a cold was astronomical.
In The Lady in the Cellar, Sinclair McKay turns his expert eye onto the case of Matilda Hacker: a rather scandalous woman (although, who wasn't in this time period?) who disappeared from the London boarding house that she was staying in, only for her skeletal remains to reappear in the house's coal cellar. What followed was an utterly beguiling investigation by Scotland Yard that completely lends itself to true-crime non-fiction: the evidence, witness accounts and the court transcripts are entertaining beyond belief and, at some points, they read more like a soap opera than something that really happened. 
People do say that the truth is stranger than fiction and the murky details surrounding the death of Matilda Hacker only cement that and, despite the fact that some of the facts remain unknown to this day, the case loses none of its appeal.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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