A Coin for the Hangman

Written by Ralph Spurrier
Review by Edward James

Capital punishment seems so alien to modern Britain that it is a shock to be reminded that just over fifty years ago there was a middle-aged man in a middle-ranking job in a London office who, two or three times a year, was paid six guineas to visit one of Britain’s prisons and kill one of the prisoners; he was the public hangman.

A Coin for the Hangman contains the most chilling description of an execution that I have ever read, all the more so because it was private and clinical; a quick little ceremony with a mumbling chaplain and everybody signing the witness book as if it were a wedding. This, the description of a fictitious execution in 1953, is the high point of the book.  It is followed by a letter which the condemned man has written to the hangman and which, incredibly, is delivered to him after the execution.

This is not really a whodunnit, as we know from the outset that the condemned man is innocent and there are not many suspects. Rather it is the life story of a young man (he is executed in his early twenties) who is convicted of killing his mother because he is odd and unsociable. A disturbing and poignant little novel.