Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
The Houndsditch Murders and the subsequent Siege of Sydney Street in late 1910 remain enigmatic. The siege occupies the last third of Jon Stephen Fink’s new novel, A Storm in the Blood, while for Emmanuel Litvinoff writing in the 1970s it was just the start, which he covered in A Death Out Of Season, the first volume in a trilogy. Between today and the ‘seventies we see things differently; how different are they between now and those murders of a century ago?
When the siege ended and the police entered Sydney Street they found the bodies of two men, neither of whom was “Peter The Painter”, the suspected leader. Subsequent trials of their colleagues and womenfolk ended in cases collapsing and verdicts of innocent. What was certain was that a jewellery robbery had taken place and that several unarmed police officers had been murdered, shot dead. Their killers were probably members of an anarchist group trying to build their funds; and perhaps the group were linked socially as Latvian emigres, specifically Jews fleeing persecution from the Ochrana, the Russian police, as Latvia was then occupied by Russia and Jews were regarded as beings even lower than Letts, outside the protection of the law. After the certainty of the deaths, though, everything else is supposition about the case.
Jon Stephen Fink, follows teenaged Rivka Bermansfelt, as she has to leave Latvia after her father is abused, to the East End of London where she finds work enough to keep body and soul together, first in a Yiddish restaurant and then singing. Her fellow Letts, revolting against the poverty in which they find themselves, introduce her to Piotr – anglicised to Peter – who paints theatrical backdrops, but none of them speaks English and none of them seem to realise that life in London is better ordered than Russia. If Rivka is learning this, then a confused bus journey which ends by dropping her in the middle of a suffragette demonstration which is being violently suppressed seems to disprove it and she is driven back into the plans of the gang.
Unlike earlier accounts of the Houndsditch Murders, Fink is not really concerned with the political background to the case: were the gang anarchists, or perhaps Social Democrats, or even early Bolsheviks (there is an outside chance that Peter the Painter was a nom-de-guerre of Josef Stalin)? He does not spend a great deal of time on their intellectual life.
Instead, he finds their behaviour deteriorating because they are ignorant and cut off – they seem not to recognise that the bobbies on the beat could even be their friends; they fail to notice that their friends such as Mr Perelman the restaurant owner do not pay bribes to the authorities. Rather, Fink sees them as earlier versions of the London July 2005 bombers, only dubiously aware of their own actions and the consequences of those actions, suffering from what philosophers call “confirmation bias” to a pathological degree, justifying to themselves their murderous path.
That the Letts’ belief was false can be deduced from the events of a few years before when in 1888 the body of Elizabeth Stride, Jack the Ripper’s third victim, was found outside the International Workers' Educational Club in Berner Street. Did the authorities use that as an opportunity to arrest the club members – all anarchists – or close the club? No, those entering and leaving were merely added to the list of witnesses as if they were going to the pub or a parish meeting.
When times are confused (in this book exemplified by the stupidity of parliament, police and prison officers in resisting female emancipation, of which Rivka experiences part getting off her bus) and there is near-unrelieved poverty then the confusion of the times will allow the confusion and paranoia of a minority to simmer and grow worse. If Peter the Painter was Stalin then of course his destructive path took another course, if not then more deadly strands of history wiped all this away within four years. Pray that what Jon Stephen Fink thinks is comparable with today may not be so.