Philip Hensher

The house on the hill

Thomas Harding’s investigation of Allan Chappelow’s brutal end has been severely restricted by puzzling legalities

‘True crime’ is a genre that claims superiority over imagination, speculation and fantasy. It makes a virtue of boredom and detailed accounts of procedure and paperwork, and characteristically narrates two things: the process of investigation and discovery, and the events that set them off. But what happens if those procedures can’t be narrated? What becomes of the genre’s claims of full and complete truth?

Owing to legal strictures, Thomas Harding has written a book which, I feel, falls frustratingly short of the book he wanted to write. The murder of an 87-year-old semi-derelict, Allan Chappelow, in Hampstead in 2006 was followed by the trial of a Chinese crook and liar named Wang Yam. The trial was in part held in camera, and it was made clear to Harding that he could not discuss certain aspects of the case, or speculate about why the trial was conducted in this extraordinary way. Nor may a review of Harding’s book speculate in its turn. This insuperable fact clearly makes the story imperfect and unsatisfying. It would have been better to have handed the whole thing over to a crime novelist, who would have been free to make up whatever he or she wanted.

Chappelow lived at 9 Downshire Hill, a historic and potentially beautiful house in Hampstead which his family had owned since his childhood. He had had no particular career. Coming from an upper middle-class background and apparently lacking in any self-doubt, he had written a couple of very poor books about George Bernard Shaw after a research degree at LSE came to nothing. He was harmlessly left-wing, taking holidays in the Soviet Union and Albania and writing one-off features about his adventures. (‘Albania is a medley of colour and sound against a background of wild but often beautiful mountains.’)

By the end of his life his house too was almost derelict, since he had no ready money.

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