The baffling case of murder most irresistible

The compelling case of Oscar Pistorius makes Andrew Martin ask himself why he bothers writing murder stories when the real thing is so effortlessly sensational

Share

My position on athletics – which is that it is incredibly boring – was undented by the Olympics, and it accounts for the fact that I had no interest whatsoever in Oscar Pistorius as a runner. But as a possible murderer... now you're talking.

The court reports from Pretoria last week read like a chapter from Great Trials of the Century, and this was only the bail hearing. Every detail seemed to have emerged from a brainstorming session among professional crime writers: there was The Question of the Empty Bladder, The Mystery of the Fifth Telephone, The Near (or Not So Near) Neighbour, The Syringe. As on the Cluedo board, we were equipped with a floor plan, and everything seemed finely poised, right down to the question of whether Pistorius was a flight risk: yes, he is a very fast runner, but then again he has no feet.

Then it was as if the brainstormers, intoxicated by having got off to such a good start, went into over-drive by producing the twist that the detective on the case, Hilton Botha, was himself facing not one but seven charges of attempted murder. If this really were crime fiction, the editor would be making a note in the margin: "Sorry, but I find this rather hard to swallow." Consequently, Hilton Botha has been replaced by Lt Gen Vineshkumar Moonoo, who I very much like the sound of. I think it would be possible to sell a crime proposal on the strength of his name alone.

The case turned me into the sort of news consumer we are all supposed to have long since become: the hypnotised, internet-clicking sort, and all that was stopping me tweeting about it was not having a Twitter account. It also made me wonder why I bother making a living writing crime fiction when the real thing seems so effortlessly sensational. But that moment of doubt was soon removed by another news story, at the core of which was the mesmerising figure of £33.3m, the equivalent in sterling of the amount of damages found payable to crime novelist Patricia Cornwell after she sued her wealth management company for mismanagement of her finances. It is partly because I seek to have wealth management issues – as opposed to an overdraft – that I write crime fiction, which overtook romantic fiction last year as the most borrowed genre from British libraries.

I was further consoled by the thought that when our murder obsession was formed, in Victorian times, true crime and crime fiction constantly intermingled. According to Judith Flanders, author of The Invention of Murder, "The distinction is very porous. For example, the murder in Bleak House is based on the Maria Manning case. [Manning and her husband murdered her lover, an episode known as The Bermondsey Horror]. And The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins is partly based on elements of the Constance Kent case." (An account of which gave Kate Summerscale a bestseller in 2008, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, a work of non-fiction often to be found on the fiction shelves.) Flanders makes the point that our obsession was, and is, with murder per se, whether real or invented. The trigger of the obsession was the growth of printed matter, whether as penny dreadfuls or Dickens novels, and, just as Pistorius has dominated every newspaper this past week, so the Victorian obsession touched all levels of society: "The Times adored murder," says Flanders, "the Telegraph was a disgusting scandal sheet!"

The psychological forces that make us susceptible to stories of murder are open to debate. The Victorians underwent a mass-urbanisation, and so the murderer on the loose might be in your very street. There was also a new type of policeman: the bloodhound. In 1842, the Detective Department was created within the Metropolitan police. Here were men whose job was to solve crimes, especially murders, after they had been committed, whereas Robert Peel had sold the idea of his early policemen – the Peelers – to a libertarian public on the basis that they would be crime-preventers, unobtrusive peace-keepers. Identification with the bloodhounds was irresistible. We all became armchair detectives, but not necessarily because we feared being murdered ourselves.

Victorians were accommodated to an expanding police force by the authorities' exaggeration of the danger of being murdered. In fact, the consumers of the murder yarns were relatively safe, and it has been contended that people are interested in murder in inverse relation to their chances of meeting a killer. Sales of crime fiction fell off steeply during the First World War, and W H Auden once wrote that a good murder ought to be shockingly out of place, "as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing room carpet". In his essay "Decline of the English Murder", George Orwell was in no doubt that murder should be a middle-class affair.

Barry Forshaw, who runs the Crime Time website, recently interviewed the Icelandic crime novelist Yrsa Siggurdardottir, and he learnt that she wrote crime fiction in part as a sort of rectification of the fact that there are only two murders a year in Iceland. Forshaw's forthcoming book is called Nordic Noir; he is also the biographer of the Swede Stieg Larsson, whose crime novels form what Waterstones calls "one of the latest in the endless peaks in modern crime fiction".

Forshaw maintains that it is the juxtaposition of murder with an apparently well-ordered society that accounts for the Scandi-crime boom. (He also suggests that with Larsson you get a bonus death on top of the murders in the books: that is, the untimely death by natural causes of Larsson himself). Conversely, I recently wrote a historical murder story set in Iraq, where 4,500 people died violent deaths last year. My own little murder would probably come over as a quaint irrelevance if anyone there got round to reading it, and it has certainly not been published in Iraq.

Another theory mooted is that women are the main consumers of murder fiction. Forshaw once surveyed "almost every leading British female crime writer" on this point. "What came up was that women were neater than men, and so they appreciated the tidy resolution of a murder mystery. But then a lot of the other women said that was sexist nonsense, so I just stayed out of it." At the risk of adding fuel to the flames I would say that my own wife is neater than I am, and she was horrified to learn that in one of my novels, the murderer gets away with it. "I won't be reading that," she said.

There is then the wider question of whether we ought to be ashamed of our interest in murder. After coming away from a crime-fiction talk or reading, where I might have sold a few books and been paid for my trouble, I have sometimes stood on a lonely station platform and thought: "It would jolly well serve me right if I was bludgeoned to death right now, given that I make money off murder." I have on a couple of occasions met librarians who don't think libraries should stock crime fiction, on the grounds that it might give people ideas, and at one reading, the local police provided everyone with a crime prevention pack, including a leaflet that said something like: "Violent crime is no joke." If the aim was to guilt-trip me, then it certainly worked.

But a murder story is ultimately moral, and on two levels. First, there is the need to have a wrong righted. That might seem a purely punitive instinct, but I suggest there is a higher morality to be aimed at, whether we are reading about Sherlock Holmes or Oscar Pistorius: a feeling in relation to both victim and accused of "there but for the grace of God, go I".

Andrew Martin's latest crime novel is 'The Baghdad Railway Club' (Faber)

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Barista

£6 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This person must also have exceptional a...

Ashdown Group: Development Engineer - Slough - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Development Engineer/ Sys...

Recruitment Genius: Software Support Analyst - Level 2

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of financial software so...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a security software com...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A memorial to the1982 war between Great Britain and Argentina in Buenos Aires  

Argentina poses no military threat to the Malvinas Islands. So why is the UK ratcheting up tension?

Alicia Castro
 

Daily catch-up: religion, politics and roads named after dictators

John Rentoul
War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?