Murder Ballads. Book review

Murder Ballads,

ed Mark Beech, Egaeus Press, Anthology, 2017

Reviewed by Stuart Douglas

It’s tempting to ignore the contents of this book and just spent 300 words rhapsodising about its quality as an object.  Hardback, on thick paper with beautiful illustrations from the Newgate Calendar scattered from coloured end paper to coloured end paper, this is a thing of beauty, a work of real love which every bibliophile would cherish, even if the contents were the latest Dan Brown potboiler.

Fortunately, that’s not the case.  Mark Beech opens proceedings with an interesting preface on murder ballads themselves, placing them in their historical content and offering some suggestions as to their lasting fascination, and then it’s onto the stories themselves, each inspired by, if not necessarily based on, a traditional murder ballad.

The quality, as is often the case with longish anthologies, is mixed, but never less than readable, though prone at times to a certain degree of wordiness.  Highlights include the ever reliable Alison Littlewood’s The Ballad Box, the tale of a balladeer for hire with a shady past, and especially Philip Fracassi’s The Baby Farmer, which manages to provide a new slant on the story of Victorian mass murderer Amelia Dyer.  But there’s something to recommend every story and if some don’t quite attain the heights of those two, well, they’re pretty high targets to reach.

If you’ve ever heard ‘Pretty Polly’ or ‘Stagger Lee’ and wondered exactly what other dark tales of murder there are out there, this collection is as good a place to start as any.  Egaeus Press are to be congratulated for putting together such a stylish volume.