Who Killed Little Johnny Gill? by Kathryn McMaste

A review of the historical crime novel Who Killed Little Johnny Gill? by Kathryn McMaste.

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Who Killed Little Johnny Gill? is based on a true story. John Gill, aged 8, disappeared on the 27th December 1888 in Bradford. He was last seen helping deliver milk with William Barrett. His mutilated body was found three days later. Suspicion immediately falls on William Barrett, having been the last person to have seen John alive. The author uses the actual details of the case, as per the local newspapers, as the basis for the book.

The sad story of John Gill is based on actual facts and events. No names or places were changed and everything you have read about took place, as reported.

I took licence to humanise the events and to bring these characters to life.

The story follows the investigation into the murder, and the following inquest and court case. It would have been easy to sensationalise this story but, to her credit, McMaste did not. The reader is also left to draw their own conclusion as to who killed John Gill.

I think that the author struggled to bring any depth to the characters and they came across as very two dimensional. This, though, was not really McMaste’s fault as they were who they were: a family from a poor area of Bradford in the austere Victorian era. She does, however, manage to convey the physical and mental toll the investigation and subsequent trial takes on John Gill’s parents.

Thomas Gill then took the stand. He was a shadow of his former self. The spark had gone out of his eyes. He had also lost weight over the last few weeks.

The most interesting part of this book, as far as I was concerned, was the look at criminal procedure of the 1800s. If a trial was conducted in the same way nowadays all hell would break loose within human rights groups with the treatment that people were subjected to. It was remarkable to see how far the criminal justice system has come in what is a relatively short time. It also highlights our reliance on DNA and forensics at crime scenes. When the best result you can hope for is ‘yes, that stain is blood,’ it’s a wonder anyone was ever convicted of any crime.

Although I understand that writing direct speech using the accent of the speaker (in this case a Bradford accent) is something that some writers do, personally I found it really annoying.

No idea, Mammy. We went up to the dairy, but Mr Barrett worn’t there. He wor out delivering milk. P’rhaps our John is playing with friends.

Sadly, the murder of John Gill remains unsolved and is little known, being over-shadowed by the crimes of Jack the Ripper. The author claims that she found it hard to stay impartial and it does show in her writing. Nevertheless, I would recommend Who Killed Little Johnny Gill? if only for an insight into the Victorian justice system.

Cassidy grew up in Thanet and lives here with her family.

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