Leading Article: Harking back to a better class of killer

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The Independent Online
AS George Orwell pointed out in his essay Decline of the English Murder, the British like few things better than to curl up with a good murder story: in his day in book form, nowadays also on television. Orwell's conviction that the quality of murders has declined since Victorian and Edwardian times seems to be shared by today's TV producers: viewers have recently been offered a rich diet of period murders, of which Sunday's two-part drama, Dandelion Dead, about the Twenties poisoner Herbert Armstrong, and In Suspicious Circumstances, the series of historically based playlets presented by Edward Woodward, are the latest.

Today's murders, with a few stylish exceptions, tend to be executed by psychopaths or terrorists. As a new film, In the Name of the Father (based on the story of the Guildford Four), and other recent cases remind us, the real killers are not always the ones locked up. This sort of messiness is not found in the classic murder case, which Orwell thought should ideally be about middle-class poisoners bent on preserving or improving their social or financial standing or fulfilling some secret passion, and often requiring the carefully planned elimination of a family member. The case of Major Armstrong fulfilled most of these desiderata.

Such period pieces are satisfying in dramatic terms, in that they have a beginning, a middle and an end. Even if based on actual events, they enable us to contemplate death in a sanitised format. Poisoning works well because it takes more time to organise than a crude pistol shot or knife thrust, and may even (especially if drugs rather than crude poison are being used) require repeated dosages. A domestic setting combines strong passions with the Aristotelian unities of action, time and place.

A murder in Wimbledon or Altrincham is likely to be more interesting than one in Brixton because it offers a contrast between the gentility of the surroundings and the shocking nature of the deed; and because more readers or viewers are likely to be able to identify with the background, if not the motives.

However indirectly, it is our own mortality that we confront in these dramas. There may not be much to be said for being murdered - at least not until one's late eighties - but there is no doubt that death by stroke, heart attack or cancer is light on entertainment value.