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Book Review: Blood on the Page by Thomas Harding

The brutal 2006 murder of an octogenarian in one of London’s most fashionable (and expensive) addresses is the topic of Thomas Harding’s 2018 book ‘Blood on the Page.’ A former resident of the same plush Hampstead suburb, for the author this is more than just a true crime project, it’s personal: as a child he delivered newspapers to the victim’s home, an elegant though increasingly ramshackle three-story Regency house and which latterly sold for £14.5 million.


At the time of his death Allan Chappelow was 86-years old and described as a ‘recluse.’ Indeed, his battered body had lain undisturbed for at least a month when it was discovered in one of the house’s dilapidated rooms. Unmarried Chappelow had inherited the splendid house from his parents who had purchased it back in the 1920s. His was a solitary life, or so it appeared.


The story begins with a random letter sent to the author. Wang Yam, the man convicted of the murder had always protested his innocence. And now, almost 10 years after the murder, was requesting the author’s help. Yam had been traced through his use of the victim’s credit cards. The day after the murder he’d flown off to Switzerland, a move which only helped increase suspicion. Despite the absence of forensic evidence however, he had ultimately been convicted of murder.


Harding’s book is structured in such a way that it jumps forward and backwards in time - a tactic that might frustrate some but does create suspense. Intertwining the life stories of both victim and alleged perpetrator with the unfolding investigation does imbue the narrative with a sense of immediacy, as if events are happening in real time. It works too. The narrative is also interspersed with ‘case notes.’ Here, the author steps outside the narrative to reflect upon his progress – or lack of – as he attempts to establish the truth. But those italics! And that tiny font!


Perhaps the book’s greatest strength is the quality of its research. Harding does not leave a single stone unturned in what feels like at times an obsessive quest for truth. Chappelow’s work on GB Shaw is fascinating and detailed: the victim had written several books about the great playwright whom he had befriended as a young man. He had also written an account of his travels in the Soviet Union.


Research into Wang Yam’s background is equally fascinating if a little elongated. Although a habitual fantasist, the author does manage to corroborate some of his claims. Yam had played a role in China’s political uprising in the late 1980s and consequently been forced to seek political asylum in the UK. Always looking to make money and with a taste for the good things in life, Yam’s many ventures into business failed however. By 2006 the Chinese dissident was in financial trouble.


For the most part Harding sets out the story objectively. But as the book progresses it becomes clear that the author has become convinced of Yam’s innocence. Certainly, the fact that part of Yam’s trial was conducted ‘in camera’ i.e. secretly is a very disturbing aspect of the case. Why did the government wish to hide certain parts of the trial from public and journalistic scrutiny?


Another puzzle is why, when he had been captured on CCTV, did Yam refuse to admit to the charge of credit card theft? Even Mr Harding is unable to explain that. However, he does manage to provide a plausible alternative theory: Chappelow likely was homosexual and had been a frequenter to nearby Hampstead Heath, London’s cruising hot-spot. Here, he might have picked up some rough trade.


Indeed, in Yam’s appeal a witness with a bent towards S&M identified Chappelow as a fellow Heath enthusiast. In this scenario, the elderly author would have invited somebody back to his ramshackle mansion and thereafter something had sparked murder; the author cites two other unsolved murders which occurred locally and which both involved the deaths of elderly homosexual males.


Harding’s theory is possible, but purely speculative. Yam’s failure to identify the Chinese gangsters whom he accused of committing the murder hardly helped his case. Presumably, he had acquired the dead man’s credit cards from these same gangsters, yet they have never been traced; it seems likely these nebulous figures were very probably a figment of Yam’s fertile imagination.


The book ends with the author revisiting Hampstead. Not shedding much if any light on the proceeding pages, it’s a rather odd way to end the book. Or maybe it is appropriate: after arriving at the end of this book it’s rather difficult not to conclude, promising as it appears at the outset, Blood on the Page is somewhat of a non-story. Certainly, as an insight into the British justice system it has more to recommend it than as a true crime thriller.


As far as I can make out Yam’s conviction is safe. Allan Chappelow was almost certainly murdered by a desperate, greedy man, an individual prone to exaggeration and who battered to death an English gentleman who refused to hand over his cards. All of which means there’s not much in the way of mystery to this book, but as far as research is concerned it's a book that can’t be faulted.