The historical mystery novel Vicar Brekonridge by veteran author Richard Helms recreates the murder trial of Daniel M’Naughten, who pled insanity and whose trial defined legal precedence for over 100 years.
Helms skillfully weaves the history into the story and attempts to shed light on the mystery of M’Naughten’s motivation and explore the charade of his trial. I thoroughly enjoyed the book.
Summary – Historical Mystery Novel Vicar Brekonridge
Helms expertly weaves in the political and economic turmoil in Britain at the time—the so-called Plug Plot riots that were part of the English General Strike of 1842, and the fight for suffrage by the Chartists against the traditional Tories.
At the beginning of the story, Daniel M’Naughten assassinates Edward Drummond, secretary to Sir Robert Peal. This killing is a case of mistaken identity because M’Naughten’s real target was the prime minister.
Leading the defense counsel’s investigation into McNaughton’s history personal is a thief taker, Vicar Brekonridge, tasked with locating evidence and witnesses to paint M’Naughten as insane. For those unfamiliar with the term thief taker – the modern equivalent is a bounty hunter.
This is where the real history becomes a study of politics making strange bed fellows.
Legal counsel’s strategy is to defend M’Naughten’s actions by theory of insanity is also the exact theory on which the prosecution bases its case. How can it be that both the prosecution and defense pursue the same theory?
The prosecution, hobbled by demands from politicians for stability, fails to properly investigate or prosecute the case. Plain facts are suppressed, and as Brekonridge digs, he uncovers the truth does not “fit the narrative” of the insanity defense.
Ultimately, nobody wants to present the truth and M’Naughten is packed away into an insane asylum, to be forgotten by everyone. Except Brekonridge.
Twenty-three years later, the investigator visits M’Naughten shortly before the Scottish assassin’s death to learn of his motivation for the crime.
M’Naughten’s Mystery Historical Background
Richard Helms’s recreation of the historical trial is enjoyable to read, and what I enjoyed the most was reading and learning about that part English history–both from Mr. Helms and on my own.
The consequences of the M’Naughten story were that it altered the legal precedence for the defense of the criminally insane—not because M’Naughten was insane but because of politics. But there is a different undercurrent in this book.
A criminal lunatic not worthy of serious consideration as Richard Moran so aptly observed in his book on M’Naughten. Daniel M’Naughten was hired to kill the Prime Minister and bungled the assassination but convicting him as a lunatic dissipated the political charge behind of the murder.
Both in the real trial and in Helms’s historical fiction novel, there is ample evidence to point to M’Naughten’s sanity and premeditation. This characterization was the only grasp available to defense to spare him from being executed. Conveniently, this is what the prime minister and the home secretary wanted as well for the purpose of stability.
M’Naughten was likely a Chartist, which was a movement of English labor for universal suffrage.
A series of laws such as the Factories Act and the New Poor Law increasingly restricted lower classes. As early as 1794, the Report on Shropshire justified the enclosure of the common lands by the following: “the labourers will work every day in the year, their children will be put out to labour early” and “that subordination of the lower ranks which in the present times is so much wanted, would be thereby considerably secured.” Poor economic conditions further exacerbated the lives of the poor.
So, what does such a laborer do when their life is systematically reduced to status of machinery? Right or wrong, M’Naughten’s answer to that question was taking up arms against his oppressors.
And the state’s response? Why did the state not prosecute him properly?
To the state, it was a convenient political solution, a method of dealing with a problem of citizens who potentially may resist unjust or immoral laws and upset political balance, possibly with violence as it occurred in revolutionary France.
“History is written by the victors.” [the Home Secretary] replied. “They control the narrative… the government has two primary concerns. The first is keeping the peace. The second, as the case in all governments, is retaining power and control…”
Define the miscreant as insane and make him disappear without becoming a martyr to his cause; “common sensibility” will be appeased, and nobody is left to rally around.
Recommendation – Historical Mystery Vicar Brekonridge
Any book that causes me to think, research, and learn more is great by my standard. I really enjoyed Mr. Helms’s historical mystery novel, recreating of the trial of Daniel M’Naughten. I strongly recommend the book to historical fiction / historical mystery genre fans.
Learn more about the award-winning author Richard Helms at his website, https://www.richardhelms.net
Learn more about the historical mystery novel Vicar Brekonridge at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EvtyAKhKJZM Get Vicar Brekonridge when it comes out 10/23/2023.
I received an Advance Reader Copy of the Historical Mystery Vicar Brekonridge for this review.
Moran, R. (1961). Knowing Right From Wrong. New Yorn: The Free Press.