"A Proper Person to be Detained" by Catherine Czerkawska is a book that stands out from the crowd for all the right reasons. We read a lot of books, and many fade from the memory fairly quickly. Others, though - a small minority - are books that are clearly destined to be remembered for much longer. This is one of them.
It helps that the book is quite different to just about anything else we can recall reading. The publisher's blurb describes it as "true crime meets family memoir meets social history". That's a pretty good description. Perhaps the closest we can get to describing it is to start in a different medium altogether. Most of us have seen the BBC TV series "Who Do You Think You Are?" For the few that haven't, the basic idea is that a celebrity is led back through the strands of their ancestry in a programme that typically focuses on one or two especially interesting ancestors with stories to tell. If the celebrity is lucky, they get a trip or two to far-flung corners of the globe to pursue the stories of those ancestors.
You can think of "A Proper Person to be Detained" as Catherine Czerkawska's written equivalent to one of the TV programmes. In her case the ancestors whose tragic stories she is pursuing lead her to the mean streets of Leeds and Glasgow in the late 1800s. The tag line on the front cover describes the book as "The story of a murder and its aftermath", so you are under no illusion that it is likely to have a happy ending. The start of the author's dedication, "For Elizabeth and John Manley, who were cheated of life..." only helps confirm this impression.
On Christmas night in 1881, 22-year-old John Manley, a poor son of Irish immigrants living in the slums of Leeds, was fatally stabbed in a drunken quarrel outside a public house. His sister Elizabeth, who was five years younger, was present and saw him die. They were the great-great-uncle and great-great-aunt of the author of this book, Catherine Czerkawska. What she has produced is a detailed account of the events leading up to John Manley's murder and its aftermath and consequences, including the police investigation and the trial of the murderer. We then move to focus on the story of Elizabeth Manley, who appears to have been badly affected by the murder she witnessed. Elizabeth's story is in places a shadowy one, because following the strands of her life that led to her own untimely demise was clearly very difficult. This part of the book nonetheless impressively uses sometimes limited historical sources to their full.
As she pursues her two linked central stories, Catherine Czerkawska takes us on journeys that are deeply revealing about the lives lived only a few generations ago by the less-fortunate in the society of the day. There is a trend in modern historical research towards "microhistory", the investigation of particular events or communities or individuals, conducted with a view to asking "large questions in small places". We suspect that Catherine Czerkawska began her pursuit of the stories of John and Elizabeth Manley because she wanted to find out more about a tragic event in her family history. Because of what she's uncovered about their lives and the lives of those around them - and because of the way she's presented it - she's ended up with a book that is of much wider interest: and a fine example of microhistory.