In the first of the two novellas in Innocent Victims, “Chickenfeed,” Walters reimagines an actual murder trial: “The Chicken Farm Murder” of 1924 in Crowborough, East Sussex. Twenty-two-year-old Elsie Cameron, an unattractive young woman desperate to be married, attaches herself to eighteen-year-old Norman Thorne, whom she notices at services at the Methodist Church in London. A devout and untried boy, Norman is soon overwhelmed by Elsie’s attention and dominated by her inconsistent emotional state, which her parents’ concede is best handled by giving in to the girl’s tantrums.
Purchasing a chicken farm outside London in the village of Crowborough in East Sussex, Norman reluctantly agrees to marry Elsie but makes it clear that he must first make a success of his new venture and be able to supply the couple with a stable income. From the start, Norman’s decision to purchase the farm is questionable, the boy barely able to keep himself in business and living in a shack he has built for shelter. Clearly in thrall of the idea of marriage without bothering to consider the reality of Norman’s living conditions, Elsie makes Norman’s life a living hell, her expectations increasing with the passage of time and his inability to make a profit. Norman is a victim of his own inability to ward off his fiancé’s demands.
When he meets a local girl named Bessie, Thorne realizes the impossibility of marriage to Elsie, who has begun to visit on weekends. The dilemma ends in Elsie’s death, a tragedy not of Norman’s making but one for which he is accused of murder for the manner in which he disposes of her dead body. On trial for his life, Thorne maintains his innocence, even to the day his life is forfeit at the end of a rope.
Expanding on the theme of Innocent Victims, Walters casts an eye to another case in “The Tinderbox”: the murder of two innocents, Lavinia Fanshaw, ninety-three, and her live-in nurse, Dorothy Jenkins, sixty-seven. The man arrested for the murders is Patrick O’Riordan, a thirty-five-year-old unemployed Irish laborer who argues that he was doing odd jobs for the ladies at the dilapidated estate to explain his fingerprints in every room. O’Riordan continues to claim his innocence.
The village turns on Patrick’s parents, an elderly Irish couple considered a blight in the quiet rural community where Liam O’Riordan’s bad reputation and junk cars litter the grounds around the O’Riordan cottage. Since Patrick’s incarceration, Bridey has made numerous calls requesting assistance with the constant harassment by local thugs, who telephone at all hours and paint graffiti on the walls of Kilkenny Cottage. Authorities cast a blind eye on the threats to the elderly pair as the village embraces the age-old animosity between the English and the Irish. Misjudgments are made, the plot behind the deaths far more devious than one easily explained by animus. In the jewel in the crown of Innocent Victims, Walters suggests that far more plausible scenario, exposing the penchant of folks to choose the meanest explanation for murder and mayhem, old villains and prejudices surfacing with a few venal whispers and a ready audience for mischief.