In my attempt to remarry the study of history with logic and the scientific method of questioning, I began reading books that made extraordinary historic claims to see what sort of evidence was cited and how well the particular case was argued. It has seemed to me for quite some time that the study of history has become lazy in this regard and that in the present age where subjectivity seems to rule academia, many scholars are not called on the floor for their less than critical examination of sources. Such is the case with Paul Spicer’s The Temptress: The Scandalous Life of Alice De Janze and the Mysterious Death of Lord Erroll (St. Martin’s Press, 2010). As you can probably deduce from the title, the extraordinary claim being made involves a murder accusation. Specifically, the author claims to have evidence that Alice De Janze, an American expatriate living in Kenya in the 1940’s, murdered Josslyn Hay, Earl of Erroll, her erstwhile lover. The story is a complex one involving a group of (mostly) British ex-pats living in the Happy Valley area of Kenya from the 1920’s to the 1940’s, many of whom swapped lovers and married each other’s divorced spouses, all the while attending each other’s parties and staying fabulous friends for life. Two of the key members of the Happy Valley set were Alice De Janze, an American divorcee and her on again, off again lover, Josslyn Hay, a playboy aristocrat-farmer. It is your everyday, typical story of people with tons of money, titles and impeccable fashion sense who set up camp in the colonies in order to make yet more money to spend on things like exotic animals, cruises around the world and boarding schools for the children they abandoned long ago. It is one long orgy fueled by sex, alcohol and the odd nervous breakdown. In other words, it is the life of the world’s aristocracy post World War 1.
The party ended on January 24, 1941, when Joss Hay was gunned down in his car in the middle of the night after leaving the home of his latest lover. There really were no shortage of suspects as Joss was famously having it off with half the women of Happy Valley and there was more than one angry husband (and several rejected lovers) hovering in the background. Eventually, Jock Delves Broughton, the husband of his latest lover, stood trial for Joss’ murder and was acquitted, quite rightly so, in my own reading of the evidence.
So, that’s the story in a nutshell. Telling this story takes up about three-quarters of an already short book (210 pages) which leaves very little time for our author to present his evidence, but no matter, the evidence is not only ridiculous in substance but there is precious little of it. Let’s review the good and the bad.
The most compelling argument for Alice being Joss’ murderer is that Alice already had a history of shooting her lovers. In 1927, she shot Raymund de Trafford in Paris after he tried to leave her (this didn’t make him think twice about marrying her five years later). Uh oh, that’s pretty damning, isn’t it? I must say that I agree with Spicer that this gives her a little bit of a history. However, her situation with Joss was quite a bit different in that she and Joss had not been lovers for years when he was murdered and that, in fact, they were quite good friends. Also, Alice attempted to take her own life after shooting de Trafford, as though she couldn’t live with what she had done, but did nothing of the kind after Joss was killed. Further, she had an airtight alibi (a lover in her bed). Spicer’s other evidence is just weirdly subjective. He is suspicious of Alice’s solicitude for Jock Delves Broughton after he is arrested and living in jail, implying that it is the impulse of a guilty conscience and not just the empathy she might have for someone in a situation in which she had once been herself. Finally, Spicer’s piece de resistance is straight out of Agatha Christie – a bloody hairpin found in Joss’ car. He implies several times that this pin must be Alice’s, nevermind that Joss had at least ten trillion women in his car during his lifetime and was sleeping with half the damn town. Also, the fact that the hairpin is bloody actually lends more credence to the idea that it was not shed during the crime. For the pin to get blood on it, it would most likely have to already be on the floor of the car when the blood starting pouring. If it was lost in some kind of a struggle, it would likely not have more than a speck or two of blood on it.
Spicer uses several other devices to help us imagine our way to Alice’s guilt, instability and sexual proclivities such as the actual fabrication of fantasies. Page 54 is the best possible example. Spicer tells the reader that we can assume that since Joss is such a playboy, that he would engineer that Alice sit next to him as he drove her and her husband to their home, because that way their legs would be close together and he could touch her as he reached for the gear shift, and all of this at their very first meeting and in front of Alice’s husband. WTF? This elaborate imagining has no basis whatsoever in any letters, conversations, etc. It is simply pure imagination, no matter how likely it may or may not have been and more likely reflects Spicer’s own weird sexual obsession with Alice, which is in evidence throughout the book.
So, what are Paul Spicer’s credentials? What sort of material does he research in order to back up this murder accusation? To begin with, Paul Spicer’s main source of information is his mother who knew Alice de Janze only peripherally. We all know just how unreliable personal accounts are, particularly when removed by time and degree. But this does not bother me nearly as much as the next, mind-boggling statement that I have to make. Paul Spicer does not consult one single primary source document. Yep, that’s right. No letters, diaries, etc. His bibliography reads as a subject guide to already published material about the Happy Valley set. There are some newspaper citations but those are arguable as sources that could have new or inside information regarding who really committed a famous murder. Homeboy literally just read everything that everyone else wrote, cribbed the backstory and added his own uncritical observations and sexual fantasies. He committed further crimes against common sense and logical thought by assuming that by exculpating Jock Delves Broughton (which he does very well) he was somehow convicting Alice de Janze by default.
The book is not without its good points. It is a great introduction to the Happy Valley set for those readers interested in what the aristocracy was doing in the years between the world wars. Spicer is excellent in including details about the social life of expats in the colonies as well as what Africa was like in the early days of the second world war. If Spicer had stuck to writing about the fascinating and scandalous lives of this group, inserting implications as points to consider rather than factual history, the book would have been far more tolerable. I think it’s flaws can best be summed up by a passage from the book that concerns the beginning of the police investigation of the murder of Lord Erroll;
“With hard evidence in short supply [the Kenyan chief of police] was going to have to rely on psychological factors and a great deal of supposition to determine the identity of the murderer, ” (p. 169)
The inclusion of such a statement shows that Spicer has no idea of what constitutes evidence, legal or historical.
Perhaps you all think I’ve been rather hard on old Spicy but my aim is to show that history suffers when we do not apply logic and reason to its study. Spicer used no primary source material, unless you can count the dubious statements of his mother, a mere acquaintance of Alice de Janze over seventy years ago, and the rumors she heard secondhand from other Kenyan settlers. Spicer, like his Kenyan chief of police, also relies heavily upon pop psychology to finger the perp. In Spicer’s case, it is a single book that informs his psychological profile of Alice, Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield. This is seriously inexplicable as we have no way of knowing whether Alice was manic-depressive and why do we assume she had “the artistic temperament”? This did not stop Spicer from diagnosing her, however, as having cyclothymia and then using this as a jumping off point to explain every subsequent action. In short, Spicer’s evidence is nothing more than his mother’s overheard stories seen through the lens of a single overblown pop psychology text. As readers, we are members of Alice’s posthumous jury and I’d have to say that the burden of proof has not been met.
I must say though that I had a great time reading the book during my flights to and from the U.K to visit the in-laws. I’ve now started The Duchess of Windsor: The Secret Life by Charles Higham to see if Wallis really was illegitimate and a secret Nazi spy. Well, that last one may not be such an extraordinary claim! This particular book is an older one (published in 1988) but there has been a recent reprint so I’ll review it anyway.
I’ve saved the best news for last – the starving archivist has been fed…PERMANENTLY! I’m now a research assistant at the Valentine Richmond History Center! http://www.richmondhistorycenter.com/index.asp I’ve been working there now a week and already love it. I spend most of my days doing archival reference by email and in person in our reading room but I also have moments of cataloging and processing, etc. In short, it is a great opportunity to experience being an archival jack of all trades.