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Goings-On in Old London : Fact and fiction blend in this tale of unsolved murder : THE TRIAL OF ELIZABETH CREE: A Novel of the Limehouse Murders, By Peter Ackroyd (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: $22; 261 pp.)

June 25, 1995|Nicholas Meyer | Nicholas Meyer is a film director, novelist and screenwriter

In the literary pantheon the mystery or detective novel is largely relegated to an inferior rung on the ladder. Yet isn't "Oedipus the King," when all's said and done, a detective story, complete with "surprise" final twist ending in which the detective discovers to his horror that the murderer he has been searching for is himself? The fact that "Oedipus" is a great deal more than a detective story ought not to obscure the fact that it is also nothing less--and one, moreover, that works triumphantly on its own terms. Agatha Christie could not devise a better plot.

In "The Trial of Elizabeth Cree," Peter Ackroyd may not have written anything to compare with Oedipus, but he has written a novel several cuts above the average mystery story, a novel, in a word, with more on its mind than whodunit.

Ackroyd, whose previous novels include the Whitbread Prize winner "Hawksmoor" as well as biographies of Charles Dickens and T. S. Eliot, has cunningly blended fact and fiction to tell his version of the notorious and unsolved Limehouse murders, a series of brutal deaths that occurred in and around an impoverished and then largely Jewish district of London in 1880. Panicked superstition at the time suspected the agency of a Golem, "the medieval Jewish word for an artificial being, created by the magician or the rabbi; it literally means 'thing without form,' and perhaps sprang from the same fears which surrounded the 15th-Century concept of the 'homunculus'. . . . It was an object of horror, sometimes said to be made of red clay or sand, and in the mid-18th Century it was associated with spectres and succubi who have a taste for blood."

Woven into the fabric of the story are the real-life personages of Karl Marx, author George Gissing (himself on the trail of another kind of artificial being, a forerunner of the computer called an Analytical Engine) and, most important of all, Dan Leno, the legendary music hall star and precursor of Charlie Chaplin. It should be said at once that the presence of these characters in the novel does not constitute mere window dressing, but rather is much the raison d'e^tre of the tale itself, whose concerns are variously social, economic, political and moral. "Elizabeth Cree" delivers all the prerequisite thrills and chills of a mystery, but it also has the power to disturb, with characters and issues likely to haunt our imaginations long after the book has ended. The crepuscular atmosphere of industrial London, so meticulously evoked by the author (to call it lovingly evoked is to miss the point), is no mere backdrop for the action, it is the reason for it.

The book bounces in a kind of dreamy slow-motion between four narrative devices. The text of Elizabeth Cree's actual trial for the murder of her husband--John Cree, a failed journalist living on a large inheritance--is juxtaposed with Elizabeth's own interior reminiscences, her husband's diary and that of an omniscient and vaguely "modern" commentator. While such switching may sound cumbersome in theory, in practice it proves to be nothing of the sort. The effect is merely to compound the sense of dread, while at the same time effortlessly elucidating the time, the place and the strange events being chronicled.

The horrific murders are committed in the midst of a particularly seamy part of London, at the center of which there thrives a vigorous theatrical tradition, variously described as vaudeville, pantomime or music hall. Elizabeth Cree, a child of the workhouse, finds success as a comedienne in the troupe of Dan Leno, where cross-dressing is a frequent part of the comic shtick. Performing in the music halls, she meets her future husband. Ackroyd knows and writes of these mean streets and vaudeville routines with an effortless, unquestioned authority, whose authenticity never overwhelms but always serves to underline his themes.

At the same time Lizzie is making her way through this squalid existence, Karl Marx and George Gissing share space in the serene reading room of the British Museum (also with Lizzie's husband, the unfortunate Cree), far removed from the sordid goings-on in Limehouse--or perhaps not so far removed, after all. Is this irony or is it merely life? Perhaps it is both, but Ackroyd is too subtle to provide pat answers.

It does not hurt that, among other things, Ackroyd actually knows how to write. It is something of a shock to encounter language that possesses rhythm and melody, prose which actually buoys us aloft on its musical currents. Reading is simply more fun when the words do more than convey information. In the modern popular novel the line between prose and journalism has blurred to the point of indecipherability. It is downright exhilarating to float on Ackroyd's simple but elegant language.

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