The Real Murder Behind William Boyd’s “Any Human Heart”

In 1943 the richest man in the Bahamas was bludgeoned to death. Who was the murderer and what was the involvement of the Duke of Windsor? Intrigued by the case, William Boyd included it in his novel Any Human Heart, starring Matthew Macfadyen, Jim Broadbent, Hayley Atwell, Tom Hollander, Gillian Anderson, Kim Cattrall, and Samuel West has been adapted for TV. (I own this DVD, and I can tell you that both Macfadyen and Broadbent are magnificent in their roles.)

March 1985. Nassau, Bahamas. I am at a crowded drinks party in a sumptuous house in a huge, exclusive gated development called Lyford Cay, a few miles from Nassau, “where the billionaires go to escape from the millionaires”. I’m staying on the island with a friend of mine, and he has brought me to this “do” as his guest. Making conversation, I start to ask the people I’m talking to about the murder of Sir Harry Oakes – in Nassau in 1943, in the middle of the second world war. It’s a case that fascinates me – and one that fascinated the world, at the time.

Sir Harry Oakes was a multimillionaire, the richest man in the Bahamas. He had made his fortune with gold mines he’d discovered in Canada and was seeking to protect it by living in a tax haven. He was something of a local philanthropist but his main concern was always his money and how he could keep it intact and untaxed. On the morning of 8 July 1943 his body was discovered in his bed. Sir Harry had died from blows to the head made with some sort of spiked club. Then his body was covered in petrol, the down from a pillow tipped over it and the bed was set on fire. But, even though the body was badly scorched, the fire didn’t take. All the evidence was there. The local CID made an urgent call reporting the murder to the governor of the Bahamas – who just happened to be the former king of England, Edward VIII, now His Royal Highness the Duke of Windsor.

At this Lyford Cay drinks party, over 40 years later, everyone is more than happy to talk about the murder of Harry Oakes and who might have killed him. I am asking leading questions and am receiving a number of very animated and interesting answers. Then I see a burly man approaching me in a loud silk shirt, followed by two Bahamian servants in black suits and bow ties.

The man smiles at me. Dead eyes. “Are you the person asking questions about Harry Oakes?”

“Yes, I am,” I say, adding politely: “and who might you be?”

“This is my party,” the man informs me. “And if you ask one more question, I’ll have these guys throw you out.”

I promise not to ask any more questions about the murder of Sir Harry Oakes and my host wanders off, followed by his staff. No problem at all, I say silently to his broad, retreating back, I’ll just put it in a novel.

And so I did, years later, in my novel Any Human Heart (2002). Among the many things the novel contains is a full account of the murder of Harry Oakes, the identification of his murderer and the crucial role played in the case by the Duke of Windsor and how he did his utmost to pervert the course of justice and condemn an innocent man to death. It’s a measure of the enduring infamy and controversy of the case that it was still capable of ruffling feathers four decades later.

To read the complete article, visit The Guardian at http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2010/nov/13/william-boyd-any-human-heart-murder

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About reginajeffers

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2 Responses to The Real Murder Behind William Boyd’s “Any Human Heart”

  1. suzan says:

    love it!

  2. Any reference to Matthew Macfadyen brings about my attention.

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