David Randall: Murder is alive and kicking, thanks to the middle class

Life outstrips art when it comes to the inventiveness of the venomous spouse
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The Independent Online

You could be excused, this past week, for thinking that newspapers had rather given up on reporting real crime, and decided instead to write up the more colourful middle-class homicides of Midsomer Murders, and present them as fact. A banker throttles his serially adulterous wife; the reclusive house-husband of a wealthy mobile phone company executive is accused of taking time out from curating his large collection of sports cars to stab his wife when he discovers she is having an affair; and a poetess is alleged to have given her husband an aphrodisiac called "horny goat weed" and lured him into the woods to slit his throat. They read like the doings in Midsomer Parva, Fletcher's Cross, and the other blood-soaked villages on the fictional patch of Causton CID. But these cases are real; a startling example, if you like, of death imitating art.

There is no shortage of material for it to mimic. The television schedules are awash with corpses, and more will turn up this week in Robbie Coltrane's new series Murderland – an appropriate title, really, since our media seems to deliver nothing less than a 24-hour seminar on how you might do away with someone. No need to mug up on forensics at the library – just turn on the telly and have a pencil and paper handy. And, if the crime reports are anything to go by, many out there are doing just that.

George Orwell would have been most impressed. One doesn't really think of him as being bothered by keeping up social standards, but the quality of domestic homiciding exercised him a great deal; which was why, 63 years ago, he wrote "Decline of the English Murder". His thesis was that the most popular cases had become shoddy and cheap. Mine is that the process has been reversed, thanks to the murderers of Middle England, both real and imagined.

In the past, Orwell wrote wistfully, the juiciest cases involved meek professional men and women finally surrendering to long-suppressed passions and doing each other in behind the lace curtains of their villas. His heroes were people like Herbert Armstrong (a Herefordshire solicitor with a roving eye who poisoned his wife Katherine with arsenic); George Joseph Smith (a Bristol antique dealer who murdered three of his wives in the bath, on one occasion playing "Nearer My God To Thee" on the harmonium immediately after); Frederick Seddon (insurance executive and Finsbury Park Freemason who bumped off his family's dotty spinster lodger, a woman who made the schoolgirl error of entrusting him with her life savings); and Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters (chief buyer for a fabric firm and her younger lover, hanged after Freddy popped out from behind a hedge in Dalston one night and stabbed Edith's stolid husband Percy). Truly, declared Orwell, 1850-1925 was the "Elizabethan Age" of English murder.

By the 1940s, he sighed, the victims were arbitrary, and the violence gratuitous. He cited the "Cleft Chin" murder of 1944, when Karl Hulten, an American deserter who fancied himself a Chicago gangster, and Elizabeth Jones, a 18-year-old apprentice stripper from Neath who fancied herself his moll, went on a six-day spree in a stolen car that left three passers-by dead. In full nostalgic flow, Orwell sniffed: "There is no depth of feeling in it... the background was not domesticity, but the anonymous life of the dance halls and the false values of the American film."

Orwell was on to something here: the idea that real-life murders (or, at least, those that catch the public's imagination) reflect ones portrayed in popular fiction. Thus, the case of "sweet" Fanny Adams (a girl of eight, found mutilated in Hampshire in 1867) seems all of a piece with the Victorian appetite for the grotesque at freak shows, and in penny dreadfuls. The murderous ways of the Edwardian professional classes, of which Orwell was such a fan, are, in a way, alternative endings to the domestic fiction of the period – as if Mr Polly, for instance, rather than simply leaving his whining wife, opted instead to bludgeon her to death with his bicycle pump. And the point holds good into the Fifties. Ruth Ellis, the last woman to hang in Britain, is one of Edgar Lustgarten's moralising black-and-white B films brought to life, the peroxided leading lady emerging from the smoke of a Soho club to gun down her lover in a Hampstead street and paying the ultimate price.

And so to our own era where the most popular fictional homicides are committed to tourist board backdrops in Lewis, Inspector Morse, and Midsomer Murders. What the latter, in particular, gives us is not murder most foul, but murder most photogenic: death among the wisteria-growing classes. The dramas seem, on the surface, the purest couch candy: chocolate-box sets in the Chilterns, a cast of easily digested eccentrics, and an imaginative line in murder weapons (the coup de grâce having been delivered, at one time or another, by a slide projector, Celtic spear, and a Roman catapault).

Critics have long derided Midsomer for its utterly implausible plots. But to these armchair sophisticates, one might put this quiz question: which of the following murders is for real, and which the basis for a Midsomer Murder episode? A) Glamorous socialite who married a tycoon 28 years her junior in a church hidden in a Polish forest is found beaten to death in £1,000-a-night hotel room; B) A wealthy dentist who treats royalty and has fathered 10 children, is accused, along with an ex-lover of faking the suicide of the pair's then spouses nearly 20 years before; C) A civil servant with big gambling debts stops his wife's car insurance, forcing her to cycle everywhere, and then tries to mow her down in a stolen sandwich van? D) A sex-obsessed spiritualist minister kills his make-up artist wife and leaves her body near the line of the steam railway at which he is a volunteer? E) A farmer kills his postmistress wife for a £400,000 insurance payout, plans a new life with his barmaid lover, and the murder weapon is a tractor?

The answer is that none are from Midsomer; all are real cases from the past 12 months. Thus, as ever, fiction and fact in middle-class murder intermingle productively, the one on our screens at night, the other, for real, in our papers the following morning.

The name of the spiritualist minister, one David Chenery-Wickens, deserves to join Crippen, Seddon, Armstrong and the others in Orwell's hall of fame. Operating from his base in East Sussex, Chenery-Wickens – nicknamed The Vicar of Fibley – cut something of a swathe through what were described as "the trusting housewives he met at séances". The case also involved tarot readings, at £40 a time; alternative therapies said to contain snake venom; a Red Indian spirit guide called Wild Fox; tall stories about his wife's "drinking problem" (she didn't have one); a middle-aged opera singer who paid him for "relationship counselling"; and claims by the minister that he had been a Nazi concentration camp guard in a previous life. Enough here to keep Chief Inspector Barnaby's brow furrowed for the whole two hours.

Indeed, high divorce settlements are, according to a female lawyer colleague, a cause in themselves of murder among bonus-receivers – the paying out of considerable amounts of alimony being regarded by some men, apparently, as a fate worse than someone else's death. And so we have replaced the respectability and hypocrisy that Orwell identified as incubators of murder in his golden age, with our own species of these two toxins. To certain ambitious and amoral types in Middle England, nothing is more shaming than to lack that large house, those three cars and the means to support them; nothing more stultifying than to not be able to possess the man or woman you temporarily desire.

The result, whatever the mechanics by which it has been achieved, is that, in terms of imagination and motive, the domestic murders whose fading Orwell lamented are in the midst of a revival. Thanks, as so often in our history, to the middle classes, the English murder is no longer in decline.