read by Thomas Harding
The death of author Allan Chappelow in Hampstead in 2006 was widely covered in the press and on television, as was the trial of Wang Yam, jailed in 2009 for his murder.
The eccentricity of the reclusive Chappelow, who had lived in the house in Downshire Hill where his body was found all his life, makes for compulsive reading. At the time of his death, Chappelow’s house was in almost total disrepair, with a collapsed roof, a kitchen that hadn’t been used for years and once elegant rooms filled with broken furniture, rubble, books and (literally) tons of paper. In one room, a tree was growing through the floorboards.
Chappelow’s body was not discovered by the police for four days after they had let themselves into his house, smothered as he was in what must have been page proofs of his several books. The police had called at his address to investigate what was probably identity fraud when his bank alerted them that someone was trying to transfer money from one of his bank accounts.
He had clearly been bludgeoned to death and an attempt had been made to burn his body. The police eventually arrested a Chinese ‘dissident’, Wang Yam, who had been granted asylum in the early 1990s and had led a troubled life in England. Yam was clearly implicated in some elements of fraud (he appears to have sold mortgages to members of the Asian community, bounced cheques and before his arrest posed as a wealthy property owner being shown around multimillion-pound properties in North London). But there was no unambiguous evidence linking him to the murder, and he protested his innocence from the very start.
What makes the case and Harding’s book so fascinating and frustrating at the same time is the suggestion of Yam’s involvement with Britain’s secret services. Much of the trial at the Old Bailey was held in camera, unheard of in murder trials in western democracies. Harding received a warning in writing from the Ministry of Justice’s [sic] litigation department stating that they wished to draw the author’s attention to the ‘gagging order’ which had the effect of preventing publication of anything heard in court in camera and that breach of the order would be punishable by imprisonment.
There is a website to accompany the book (www.bloodonthepage.com) which contains more ‘speculation’ than Harding (and his lawyers) allowed to appear in the book, most of it from the Daily Mail, the Mirror, Camden New Journal, the Guardian and The Times. It is ridiculous that even to infer anything from the facts of the secrecy surrounding the trial would be judged contempt of court.
So much for freedom of speech.
It is clear, nevertheless, that there is very little in the public domain apart from circumstantial evidence that Yam killed Allan Chappelow. His rights of appeal have been summarily rejected. He will spend the rest of his sentence in prison. The author has not been allowed to visit him, but during the writing of the book he was in communication by phone. Yam’s state of mind is, according to Harding, crushed by events. And prisons, as we know, are not safe places. It is quite possible his life is in danger from either Chinese gangs (Yam kept saying that it was they who were behind the identity theft) or the authorities. Under the circumstances, don’t be surprised to read of his death before he becomes eligible for parole.
The book is arranged, like most true crime books, chronologically, in terms of the discovery of the crime and its early investigation and then the life stories of the victim and the prime suspect. There are also sections entitled ‘Case Notes’ in which the author charts the progress of his own investigation: his interviews with relatives of the victim, with police and counsel and with people who knew something of Wang Yam’s life. He also documents his phone calls with Yam. The style is journalistic: the story has its own momentum. Another commentator has noted the author’s fondness for splitting infinitives. His reading style is not that of a professional narrator: but one somehow always gains insights when an author reads his own words.
If you like true crime, then this will not disappoint. ‘Unputdownable’ is overused praise in the book trade, but in the case of Blood on the Page, I think it fits the bill.
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