'Ian Ashbridge is a murder sleuth. He has an abiding passion to track down murder wherever it has occurred. He is interested in “the darker intricacies of human behaviour”. He is in search of “vintage killings”.
Cumbria has provided its fair share of murders over the past century.
One of the most brutal was in West Walls in Carlisle, on Guy Fawkes Day, 1910. A tanner and curer of skins, Alexander Norval, was found by a policeman on his beat lying at the foot of the stairs leading to his office. The seventy-five year-old had been battered to death, apparently with the heavy axe he kept in his office. His purse was missing, but his watch and pocket book were still about his person.
Alexander’s son, Archibald from Sheffield Street, was arrested. He was drunk, a gambler and known to be desperately short of money – his father paid him badly for his work in the tannery. In the court he explained away the bloodstains on his clothes as being the result of his work. The evidence against him was deemed insufficient and he was acquitted. The murder may have been committed by a passing tramp who saw an opportunity for some easy money. However, Archibald had been flush with money that day and he was known to detest his father. After a hundred years we can come no closer to a conclusion about one of the most brutal murders to have occurred in Carlisle.
The last murderer from Carlisle to be hanged was twenty-two years old John Wilson Vickers in 1957. He was a ne-er-do-well from Croglin who had come to live in Aglionby Street to savour the delights of a big city. Constantly short of money and with an eye for easy pickings, he’d kept a watch on the small shop on the corner of Tait Street run by Miss Jane Duckett. She was frail and deaf and in her seventies. Vickers had effected an entry in the middle of the night and was searching the cellar when the old lady appeared at the top of the stairs, in her nightdress and slippers. Vickers hit out at her, but he denied kicking her.
With Miss Duckett lying dead in the cellar Vickers ransacked the house and then made good his escape. Back at his lodgings, at four o’clock in the morning he washed the blood off his cardigan and even had the coolness to iron his tie before he went to bed.
Neighbours noticed the milk had not been taken in the following morning. The shop failed to open and the police were informed. Within twenty-four hours, the police had arrested Vickers. In court his plea of manslaughter was rejected and he was found guilty of murder.
There have been other more notorious murders in the county. Most famous of all was perhaps the Percy Toplis case in 1920. Toplis was an army deserter and petty criminal who had killed a taxi-driver in Hampshire and then, when on the run, had shot a policeman and farmer in the Grampians. A national man-hunt was on.Toplis stayed over-night in Carlisle. He was seen and accosted by a local bobby in High Hesket. The policeman, PC Fulton backed away when Toplis threatened him with his Webley 6 revolver. Toplis made good his escape, but only as far as Plumpton churchyard where he was surrounded and shot by the police.
The murderer Ian Ashbridge finds “most noxious” is Archibald Thomas Hall, alias “the Butler”. Hall was a professional criminal and con-man. He left a trail of murders around the country and eventually sought to lie low in Newton arlosh.
Ian Ashbridge opens eighteen cases of murders from around the county. Some have been cold-blooded, some have been crimes of passion. No area of the county escapes. Chung Yi Miao garrotted his fiancée in Borrowdale. Peter Anthony Allen and Gwynne Owen Evans murdered John Alan West for his money in Seaton. They were the last men to be hanged in England.
There were comparatively few murders in Cumbria in the last century. Ian Ashbridge tells the story of those that did occur with a sharp forensic eye. He also has a deep sense of the villainy of human nature.' - Steve Matthews, Bookcase.