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The Limehouse Golem: My take on the book by Peter Ackroyd #book2movies [review]

Now that I’ve finished reading and ‘reviewing’ the book behind the movie The Limehouse Golem, I wanted to make sure I shared my take on the book with followers of British Isles Friday hosted by Joy Weese Moll. If you love London, this gives you a look at the dark, grimy underside of life; I haven’t looked at the movie reviews but I think dark world will translate beautifully to the screen.

I met the characters of Dan Leno & The Limehouse Golem a few days ago and introduced them to those of you who haven’t met them previously. You may have read the book under its’ previous title The Trial Of Elizabeth Cree and it really is Elizabeth’s story. Peter Ackroyd is the renowned author of dozens of books—both fiction and non-fiction—poetry and even television shows. He keeps his writerly lens focused on the city of London and its people and is known for using historical elements contrasted with contemporary views. That aspect, the journalistic vs the fictional had me googling quite often in The Limehouse Golem to determine what was true and what came from Ackroyd’s mind. Thank goodness for the internet, it’s easy to do that, your device of choice next to your book. (Or in my case, since I read it on my Nook, all I had to do was click on the name or event and my Nook would take me to the relevant pages online. I really do love my Nook, even though it’s badly outdated and sure to die one of these days.)

Here’s the story, per the publisher

Without a doubt, Peter Ackroyd's breakout book. It has all the erudition and literary brilliance we expect of Ackroyd, yet it is as vivid, scary, and spellbinding as the best of Edgar Allan Poe. The year is 1880, the setting London's poor and dangerous Limehouse district, home to immigrants and criminals. A series of brutal murders has occurred, and, as Ackroyd leads us down London's dark streets, the sense of time and place becomes overwhelmingly immediate and real. We experience the sights and sounds of the English music halls, smell the smells of London slums, hear the hooves of horses on the cobblestone streets, and attend the trial of Elizabeth Cree, a woman accused of poisoning her husband but who may be the one person who knows the truth about the murders. The wonderfully rhythmic shifting of focus from trial to back alleys, where we come upon George Gissing, author of New Grub Street, and even Karl Marx, gives the story a tremendous depth and resonance beyond its page-turning thriller plot. Peter Ackroyd has once again confirmed his place as one of the great writers of our time.
The story is told from various points of view, that of Lambeth Lizzie Marsh an impoverished girl who gets caught up in the world of the music halls and John Cree, a newspaperman who reviews the shows, the strongest, most intriguing voices.

Real life Victorian author George Gissing—who like the imaginary Cree spends a lot of time at the British Museum Reading Room—is also fascinating when we see his relationship with a rumored prostitute who drives him to thievery. Less so when we have to read Ackroyd’s detailed account of George Gissing’s fascination with the real Thomas DeQuincey’s ‘‘On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts (1827)’’ That was a little tough going for me, quoting as it does, quite liberally from an essay Gissing didn’t actually write. 

Elizabeth, though, is the driving force of the book and her story is gripping. From the beginning where she tells us in her own words of her hatred for her overly religious mother—there are bible pages pasted up all over their walls—and her rise up through the world of theater until she marries the respectable John Cree, we can’t take our eyes off her or the world she lives in. Dan Leno, a huge part of Lizzie’s world is the major music hall comedian and star, another real character Ackroyd plucks from history and brings back to life for his fascinating book. 

As is often the case, I read this novel aware there was a movie in the works. That film, The Limehouse Golem, is in theaters now. While it can’t possibly deliver all the scholarly aspects of the book, it’s a tribute to the strength of Ackroyd’s writing—striking, stirring and cinematic—that I can already visualize the scenes.  The movie stars Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke as Elizabeth and Douglas Booth as Dan Leno.

The Limehouse Golem is in theaters now and for anglophiles should provide a deliciously dark and absorbing look at Victorian London.