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“Death at the Priory” by James Ruddick (Grove/Atlantic, 236 pages, $24) In April 1876, in Balham, a pleasant, well-off suburb of London, a young lawyer named Charles Bravo finished dinner, mounted the stairs to his bedroom, drank a glass of water, undressed — and collapsed, unconscious, from what was to prove a fatal dose of antimony poisoning. In the century and a quarter since Bravo’s death, some of England’s greatest crime writers, including Agatha Christie, have proposed solutions to the still-vexing question of why — and by whose hand — Bravo met his end. Now, in “Death at the Priory,” journalist James Ruddick has conducted the most thorough investigation of the crime since Detective Chief Inspector George Clarke interviewed the principles on the heels of the terrible event. Ruddick claims to have definitively solved the case, but while the evidence he’s uncovered is provocative and his own theory plausible, the full story of the death at Balham’s Priory remains strangely, almost satisfyingly, unresolved. For a book that becomes riveting at times, Ruddick’s account gets off to a slow start. The first 40 pages give the background of the tale’s chief character, Florence Bravo. Born to the powerful Scottish clan Campbell, Florence married young to a handsome, alcoholic army officer named Alexander Ricardo, separated from him after six years, and took sanctuary in the spa town of Malvern in a sanatorium run by one Dr. James Gully, whose lover she became. This material is of some significance for the rest of the story, but Ruddick dips a bit too deeply into the details of the passionate affair between Florence and Gully, which resulted in a pregnancy, an abortion and a good deal of damage to both their reputations. By 1875, though, Florence’s fortunes seemed to be on the upswing. Ricardo had died in 1871 and left her a vast fortune, which she used to buy a handsome white stucco house called the Priory and furnish it with typical Victorian excess. She was able now, too, to hire a large household staff, including a housekeeper-cum-companion named Jane Cox. And her fortune presented no obstacle to her courtship by Charles Bravo, an acquaintance of Cox’s. In fact, Ruddick (not entirely convincingly) depicts the marriage as a forthright quid pro quo: Bravo gave Florence a second chance at respectability; Florence gave Bravo access to her fortune. After the marriage, the pace of the book picks up dramatically. Tension builds as the couple quarrels about money, sex and children. Ruddick portrays Bravo as a proud, ambitious man eager to assert dominance at home by firing servants, scrutinizing Florence’s expenditures and insisting on his conjugal rights even as his wife suffers repeated miscarriages. Florence comes across, by turns, as both abused and willful; she puts up with her husband’s temper, but resents him for his attempt to tell her how to spend her money, and at one point sulkily retreats to her parents’ estate, while Bravo writes her pathetic, conciliatory letters. Meanwhile, the supporting cast moves mysteriously in the background. Jane Cox, relied on in so many ways by her mistress, inexplicably meets Dr. Gully time after time on Balham’s quiet streets; a recently fired groomsman, George Griffiths, makes dark predictions in a local pub that his employer will “be dead in a few months.” And on the night of April 18, 1876, Griffiths is proved right. On that day, Jane Cox traveled to Worthing to look for a house for the two ladies to rent for a holiday, Florence made her first visit to London proper since her most recent miscarriage, and Charles Bravo went into work as usual. All met once again around the dinner table, where they dined on lamb, drank burgundy (three glasses for Bravo) and sherry (a bottle each for the ladies), and retired early, exhausted by their various activities. Bravo went up to the small bedroom he’d been using since his wife lost their baby, and emerged 15 minutes later onto the landing, shouting for Florence and for water. Mary Ann Keeber, the housemaid, heard him; Jane Cox, knitting at the foot of her mistress’s bed, just feet away from the landing, apparently did not, nor did Florence, already lulled into slumber by an extra glass (or two) of Marsala. After Keeber summoned Cox and woke Florence, Bravo’s distraught wife sent for no fewer than five medical men, all of whom agreed that her husband had been poisoned by a corrosive agent that was eating away at his digestive system in the cruelest and most painful way. All the doctors could do was keep him comfortable, and 55 hours later, on the morning of April 21, Bravo died, leaving his estate to his widow and a conundrum to history. In the second half of “Death at the Priory,” Ruddick marches through the details of that mystery, bringing suspects onstage with the thoroughness and precision of someone playing Clue: Was the culprit Bravo in the spare bedroom, done in by his own hand? George Griffiths in the stables with the horse poison, bitter over his dismissal? Dr. Gully (with Jane Cox as accomplice), acting out of jealousy? Cox alone, desperate to keep a post Bravo’s economies had threatened to eliminate? Or fair Florence, feeling exhausted and trapped by the behavior of a second abusive husband? As did Agatha Christie in “Ten Little Indians,” Ruddick cleverly keeps his readers in suspense by eliminating, step by step, every possible murder suspect; he then begins his story over again by re-examining his own conclusions. I won’t give away his proposed culprit — although given the sour comments Ruddick makes throughout the book about the person he eventually fingers, the unveiling hardly comes as a shock. Still, Ruddick’s theory of what happened at the Priory that April evening is quite plausible, and accounts for the evidence better than most other explanations expounded by devotees of the Balham mystery over the years. Simply suggesting a convincing answer, however, doesn’t relieve the writer’s responsibility for providing an insightful analysis of the problem, and this is the chief weakness of “Death at the Priory.” Ruddick wins marks for doing original research, although his new discoveries fall far short of the decisive findings he repeatedly promises. In many other areas, though, his command of facts is slipshod. Take Ruddick’s interpretation of one of multiple inconsistencies in Jane Cox’s story. According to her, when she first went to Bravo’s bedroom, the dying man told her, “I have taken poison — don’t tell Florence.” For several reasons — including the fact that Mary Ann Keeber was in the room at the time and heard no such thing — Cox’s account is not credible. Ruddick suggests that Cox invented the exchange because “by the time she came to make her police statement she was conscious of [a] strong feeling against her” and was “anxious to avoid a capital charge.” But Ruddick knows full well that Cox told the story of Bravo’s “confession” to the doctors on the night of the poisoning; subsequent suspicions could not therefore have been the motivating factor for the lie. (Actually, of course, the reverse is true. Cox drew attention to herself for this and several other inexplicable actions of hers on the night of the murder.) Ruddick compounds his careless treatment of the facts by an uncritical approach to much of his material; he seems to assume that everyone on the witness stand at the inquest was telling the truth unless he himself has proved otherwise. Not for him the skepticism of a trained courtroom observer like the great British lawyer and crime reporter William Roughead, who piercingly noted in his short account of Bravo’s murder that Florence Bravo and Jane Cox “were plainly acting in concert” when giving their testimony, and that the tale both women told of the unhappiness of the Bravo marriage was unsubstantiated by servants and family. But Ruddick’s most clanking failure is his propensity for bizarre statements about female behavior, especially Florence’s. At times, Ruddick’s generalizations make it sound as if he has never met actual women, but only read about them in the same sources from which he draws his historical, legal, and medical information. Discussing the impact of Florence’s several miscarriages, Ruddick stiffly intones that “The attitude of women towards miscarriages varies. Some are deeply traumatized by them; a few regard them with clinical detachment.” As for his understanding of Florence Bravo, Ruddick portrays her half the time as a proto-feminist, confident in her sexuality and her financial independence, and other times as little more than a child, unable to act except out of fear: “From the moment of her first marriage,” Ruddick writes melodramatically, “Florence’s life had been reduced to a game of countermoves, in which the central player, having lost control of the deck, could do little more than react.” Without a more sophisticated psychological insight into the subjects of his inquiry, Ruddick is never quite able to give us a full, persuasive picture of what happened at the Priory and why. And yet, something about the impossibility of wrapping up Charles Bravo’s death in a neat, clean package is gratifying. Ruddick has done a smooth job of setting out the facts of the Balham mystery, and an impressive job of digging up new evidence in the case. But it would have been rather disappointing if a case that had puzzled scholars, writers and armchair detectives for so long had turned out to have an obvious and problem-free solution. Indeed, the appeal of the Balham mystery — of any unsolved mystery — is not just that the facts puzzle us, but that the behavior of the people involved refuses to resolve itself into simple, transparent impulses. In the end, these cases fascinate because they involve passions, emotions and attitudes that are thankfully difficult for most humans to share. Beth Johnston is a lawyer and writer in Cambridge, Mass.

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