Hailed by “The Bookseller” as ‘One to Watch’, Jane Davis is the author of nine thought-provoking novels. Her debut, Half-truths & White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award 2008. Of her subsequent three novels, “Compulsion Reads” wrote, ‘Davis is a phenomenal writer, whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless’. Her 2015 novel, An Unknown Woman, was “Writing Magazine”’s Self-published Book of the Year 2016 and has been shortlisted for two further awards. Smash all the Windows was the inaugural winner of the Selfies (best independently-published work of fiction) award 2019. When she isn’t writing, you may spot her disappearing up a mountain with a camera in hand. Her favorite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’.
1. Tell us about the inspiration behind your new release, At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock.
The book is the result of my long-held fascination with Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Great Britain. I was only a teenager when I was first hooked by the story of the blonde hostess, who took a gun, tracked her errant racing-boy lover down to a public house in Hampstead, shot him in cold blood, and then calmly asked a bystander to call the police.
The reason for my initial fascination is almost as complicated as Ruth herself was. It’s difficult to accuse those who paid £30 for a seat in the Old Bailey’s public gallery of treating personal tragedy as entertainment, without acknowledging at least something of the same motivation. At the same time I found it truly shocking that the last hanging in Great Britain took place as recently as 1965. This was the world I inherited. Having said that, one of my American beta readers lives in a state where the death penalty in still in use, and who is an active campaigner against abolition. In my mind I was writing historical fiction. She was reading current affairs.
It was only recently, when reading Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five that my thoughts about Ruth finally crystallised. Learning the untold stories of Jack the Ripper’s victims, I saw clear parallels. Like Ruth, The Five had blighted, messy lives. They made bad choices (arguably, forced upon them by necessity). They too abandoned children, turned to alcohol and took up with men they wouldn’t have considered taking up with had they been able to support themselves. The difference is that, while those choices landed The Five in the path of the Ripper, Ruth herself turned killer. The tragedy is that because Ruth admitted her guilt, neither the police nor the legal teams at trial took much effort to discover what would drive a 28-year-old mother of two to do such a thing.
Keen though my interest was, I hadn’t considered that it might turn into a novel until in the winter of 2017 I watched a documentary about the actress Ingrid Bergman – part of the BBC’s excellent arts series, Imagine. Left wanting more, I ordered her autobiography. By coincidence rather than design, I followed this with two biographies written about two other women from very different backgrounds who’d lived through the fifties – and each had an anecdote to tell about an association with Ruth Ellis. The common link seemed to be the afternoon drinking clubs that thrived in post-war Britain. (Think black-market supplies, illegal gaming and illicit affairs.) Few other places offered the opportunity for ex-servicemen and bored businessmen to rub shoulders with a roll-call of royalty, politicians, intellectuals, journalists, celebrities and gangsters. Ruth Ellis both managed the Little Club and socialised in other private members clubs, such as the Steering Wheel Club, the racing fraternity’s venue of choice. A club seemed the ideal place for my three main characters to meet
2. How does At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock fit in with your other books?
It was only yesterday when answering a question about the book that I realised, although this is a very different book to my last release, Smash All the Windows, the approach I took was much the same. Smash All the Windows came about as my reaction to the result of second inquest to the Hillsborough Disaster, but you have to tread so carefully if relatives of victims are still alive. I asked myself, what could I add to the range of material that had already been produced, if a fictional account would be welcome, and what right I had to tell the story? My decision was to create a fictional disaster to explore the issues faced by the Hillsborough families.
I had similar concerns about writing Ruth Ellis’s story. Because I set myself the rule of only using information that would have been known to the public at the time of her death – in reality this was very little – I used three very different female characters to explore the issues she faced. My idea was that when they learned of her fate, each would have their own reason to say, ‘There but for the grace of God.’
Although the three don’t actually suffer Ruth’s fate, lied to and exploited by men, each finds a way to fight back. But this is the fifties. Defy society’s expectations, and the message is clear. They must pay the price.
London 1949. The lives of three very different women are about to collide.
Like most working-class daughters, Caroline Wilby is expected to help support her family. Alone in a strange city, she must grab any opportunity that comes her way. Even if that means putting herself in danger.
Star of the silver screen, Ursula Delancy, has just been abandoned by the man she left her husband for. Already hounded by the press, it won’t be long before she’s making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Patrice Hawtree was once the most photographed debutante of her generation. Now childless and trapped in a loveless marriage, her plans to secure the future of her ancient family home are about to be jeopardised by her husband’s gambling addiction.
Each believes she has already lost in life, not knowing how far she still has to fall.
Six years later, one cause will unite them: when a young woman commits a crime of passion and is condemned to hang, remaining silent isn’t an option.
“Why do I feel an affinity with Ruth Ellis? I know how certain facts can be presented in such a way that there is no way to defend yourself. Not without hurting those you love.”
3. Is there a story behind the title?
Nine O’Clock was the hour when executions were carried out in the UK, and I knew that the moment of Ruth’s was the unavoidable ending I was working towards. I thought that having the book begin and end with the chimes of Big Ben might bring with it a neat symmetry, but then I discovered that there was an occasion in August 1949 when Big Ben failed to chime. This caused widespread panic. People thought that World War 3 had broken out – at the time that was a very real fear – or that the king or the prime minister had died. And disruption makes for a far better opening.
4. One of the unspoken questions you address is whether Ruth Ellis got a fair deal in the criminal justice system.
The question is really whether women get a fair deal.
When Ruth Ellis’s case was brought before the court of appeal in 2003, the conclusion reached was that she was judged by the law as it stood at the time. That may be true (the partial defence of diminished responsibility wasn’t introduced until 1957), but shouts of ‘common tart’ were heard as she entered court number one at the Old Bailey. The judge found it necessary to repeatedly ‘remind’ the jury not to concern themselves with adultery or sexual misconduct; that Ruth Ellis was not being tried for immorality but for murder; that they shouldn’t allow their judgement to be swayed or their minds prejudiced in the least degree because, by her own admission, Mrs Ellis was a married woman when she committed adultery, or because she was having affairs with two different lovers at the same time. It’s impossible to imagine similar comments being made had a man been on the stand. And so it does seem that women are disadvantaged by the dual standards at play – although it must be said that the judgement came from women as well as men. The further a woman stepped away from the traditional image of nurturer and homemaker, the harsher that judgement was.
And although we like to think we’ve come a long way, that still seems to be the case. Speaking in 2019 about the case of Sally Challen (Sally murdered her husband of over 30 years), human rights lawyer Harriet Wistrich said, ‘The law doesn’t work well for women in relation to issues of violence.
If a woman fights back, they are often punished more severely than a man that’s violent.’ It’s often argued that had the partial defence of diminished responsibility been available in 1955, Ruth Ellis would have been convicted of manslaughter rather than murder, but Sally’s case shows us that this outcome wouldn’t have been guaranteed. As at Ruth’s trial, Sally’s story didn’t come out in court. Aware that their sister had suffered at her husband’s hands, her brothers challenged her defence team why the matter of their brother-in-law’s behaviour wasn’t raised. They were told, ‘Speaking ill of the dead doesn’t go down well will the jury’, a sentiment echoed by the Crown Prosecution Service’s representative: ‘It’s not Mr Challen who’s on trial. The fact that someone was incredibly cruel and abusive towards their partner is not on its own a defence to murder.
Jay’s interview with Jane Davis is part of an ongoing series of author interviews. Click here to review Jay’s other interviews.
At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock is available at the following links below for £4.99/$4.99.
- The Universal Link is https://books2read.com/u/brWppZ
- Books2Read Universal Link: https://books2read.com/u/brWppZ
- Amazon Link https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08B1PCTC1
- Goodreads link https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/53955188-at-the-stroke-of-nine-o-clock
Contact Jane Davis