Letter: In defence of the intelligent villain

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From Mr David Williams

Sir: George Orwell once wrote an essay in Tribune entitled "Decline of the English Murder". In it, he calculated that of the nine murderers whose reputations had "stood the test of time" (and who perpetrated their crimes between 1850 and 1925), eight were middle-class criminals. This was so, he argued, because the typical English murderer was someone from the professions, eminently respectable, a local church or political or temperance leader who, after yielding to moral temptation, will bring himself to the point of murder rather than face exposure and social ignominy. It was all about a developed capacity for moral choice.

PD James was saying much the same thing on that radio interview. In effect, she was contrasting the well-considered, calculated murder by someone with a tutored intelligence, and the spontaneous slaying outside a pub on a Friday night of one drunken lout by another drunken lout, or the incidental, gratuitous slaying of a defenceless pensioner by a semi-illiterate teenage burglar.

In crime fiction terms, she might well have added that an educated character can, by and large, be made more convincingly articulate, resourceful, wittier, and more engaging to the reader than an ignorant yobo, and is thus capable of sustaining interest in the kind of detective stories she and many of us write. Incidentally, I believe she several times tempered what she said by making it plain that her strictures about the middle class were not exclusive.

Anyone who knows PD James, or her work, need only to exercise common sense to realise that the distinction she was making was intended to be about culture not class. I find it hard to understand why a view expressed without reservation, in 1946, by the then literary editor of a respected left-wing weekly should be considered so exceptionable when put much less adamantly today by a distinguished member of the House of Lords.

Yours faithfully,

David Williams

Virginia Water, Surrey

15 September

The writer is a former committee member of the Crime Writers Association.