The Historian of Crime: Richard Whittington-Egan

By Wade, Stephen | Contemporary Review, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

The Historian of Crime: Richard Whittington-Egan


Wade, Stephen, Contemporary Review


HOW often today do we encounter the term 'bookman'? Perhaps some younger readers and writers may not he too sure what the term actually means. The bookman was in some ways a product of the late Victorian and Edwardian years, when there was a new flowering of writing in both journalistic modes and in more literary genres, much of it aimed at the expanding commuter class who wanted a twenty-minute read on their morning and evening journeys in and out of the 'Great Wen' of London. The bookman of the time, according to John Gross in his study of the man of letters in social history, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, defined the type as a writer who has a book in progress, but who also has a few books for review on the desk, and perhaps an essay or two being planned out. Is that a profile of a writer now long gone?

The answer is no. We have a writer in mind, still active in his eighties, who has written across a wide spectrum of genres and conventions in his long career, and this essay on his work is long overdue. Where is his biography? My essay will surely provide enough stimulation for someone to look closer at Richard Whittington-Egan's work and join me in helping to disseminate more awareness of it.

He has close associations with this journal, of course. He has been writing for Contemporary Review for more than half a century and is now the longest-standing contributor. One of his most recent books is a collection of essays, Speaking Volumes (Cappella Archive, Great Malvern), and it contains several pieces which first saw the light of day in the Contemporary. A glance at the sections of that book of essays confirms the bookman in the oeuvre: 'Criminal Causes', 'Literary Biography', 'The Occult', 'Poets and Poetry' and much more. How are we to understand this remarkable writer? Such a polymath is hard to define, but then, why should we? In the arts there is always the urge to define, to label. We use taxonomy so that understanding seems a little more manageable. In fact, being a free spirit in literature can positively affirm that there are other ways to success in the written word as a career than the established progressions in academia or in the freelance life.

One of the most refreshing aspects of Richard Whittington-Egan's literary life is that it is clearly brimming with sheer workful vitality and yet deadlines must be anathema. His books have a long gestation period and he loves the research. Today, the world of publishing mostly succeeds on the principle of taking a commercial idea and making the most of it before matters cool. Synopses are proffered; advances given (increasingly small ones) and books hurried into print. But a Whittington-Egan book is the product of long periods of thinking and an effort towards empathy. Like some other notable writers, principally Richard Holmes who has to walk every battlefield he writes about, Richard Whittington-Egan wants the pleasures and pains of total immersion in the substance of a book and its subject.

It is entirely fitting that on the back fly-leaf of one of his books, Richard Whittington-Egan should be pictured on horseback, yet wearing a jacket, shirt and tie. That contradictory image sums up the contrast and contradictions in the man: he is an active type, loving the outdoors, yet looks every inch a businessman or professional type in some capacity. He is, of course, both. He assisted at the autopsy of Benito Mussolini but, no doubt, wandered from that cadaver to gaze at old masters in the nearest gallery. With these startling images in mind, there is here clearly a writer whose time for appreciation has come. He has worked away on writing that has fired his imagination for several decades, and is respected in particular by collectors and enthusiasts of true crime at its most stylish level.

Richard Whittington-Egan was born in Liverpool in 1924, being the great-grandson of the first conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, James Zeugheer-Herrman. …

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