"The Secret Life and Curious Death of Miss Jean Milne" by Andrew Nicoll is a superb read, the sort of book that keeps you compulsively turning pages until there are no more to turn. The book reads like a crime novel, told largely from the point of view of Sergeant Fraser, a stalwart of Broughty Ferry's tiny police force. It is late 1912. Miss Jean Milne, a wealthy spinster of indeterminate but advancing years, is found savagely murdered in her fine villa in Broughty Ferry, a town known, because of all Dundee jute mill owners who lived there at the time, as the "richest square mile in Europe". Miss Milne was a lady of eccentric and increasingly reclusive habits, and it very quickly becomes clear that there was much more to her life than met the eye.
Broughty Ferry's Chief Constable, J. Howard Sempill, is far out of his depth and seems unable to cope with either the investigation itself or the intense press interest in the sensational murder. Yet he is also intensely jealous of any interference from the neighbouring City of Dundee Police. He therefore calls for assistance from the City of Glasgow Police, who dispatch Detective-Lieutenant John Trench to lead the investigation into the murder. What follows in an enthralling account of a police investigation that often appears remarkably ahead of its time, yet which also leaves significant gaps in its coverage and at times seems little less than inept.
It helps at this point to know that Miss Jean Milne was a real person; that her murder took place exactly as described in this book; and that the account of the investigation is closely based on the original police files. We follow the investigation to London, and to Antwerp, and Sergeant Fraser is witness to the growing tensions between Detective-Lieutenant Trench, who remains open-minded about the identity of the murderer, and Chief Constable Sempill, who believes he knows who killed Miss Milne and wants to see his suspect hang: if only to appease the press and ensure his own career progression. So, who did kill Miss Jean Milne? As far as the official record is concerned, this remains an unsolved crime. But in going through the police files, author Andrew Nicoll stumbled over a number of curious gaps in their investigation that pointed him in a particular direction. His version of history is compelling and draws the reader on to a conclusion that is both unexpected and satisfyingly convincing. Yes, at one level this is a "real crime" book: but it's also exceptionally good if you simply read it as crime fiction.