A Very British Murder, by Lucy Worsley. BBC Books, £20

In an era of mass literacy but not the total exposure of today, the classic homicide flourished

Rebecca Armstrong
Saturday 07 September 2013 10:13

What is a very British murder? An entertaining one. In this book, which accompanies her TV series, historian Lucy Worsley explores the nation’s interest in both true crime, and its fictional representations, between 1800 and 1946. These dates roughly correspond with two writers who both saw a certain kind of murder as something that could enthrall, as well as horrify.

One is George Orwell, and it’s his 1946 essay “Decline of the English Murder” that Worsley kicks off with. Worsley cleverly uses his oft-quoted work as a neat device to mark the end of an era. Writing about her research on her blog, she posits that “Murders after the war – the Moors murders, for example – are just too awful to be fun anymore.”

So what makes a murder fun? In his article “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” (1827), Thomas De Quincey, the other writer who bookends her investigations, imagines a club, The Society of Connoisseurs in Murder, where murder is given the same critical treatment as a “picture, statue or other work of art”.

With the limiting of the death penalty to fewer crimes, a rise in literacy and the increasing urbanisation of society, Worsley argues that the perfect set of conditions were present for murder to become mass entertainment. People were looking for something to thrill and titillate them, and violent death fitted the bill: gore, villains, victims and a bit of mystery gave people whose lives were becoming ever more secure something to quiver over. Newspapers and publishers realised that death drove sales, and writers including Dickens and Sir Walter Scott were inspired by real-life crimes (Nancy in “Oliver Twist” was based on Eliza Grimwood, a prostitute known as “The Countess”, murdered in 1838).

Worsley charts the evolution of the crime novel through penny bloods, penny dreadfuls, yellowbacks, sensation novels and pulps. She also takes in the setting up of the police force, the rise of the detective, Madame Tussaud’s enduring fame (during the First World War, the Chamber of Horrors was, apparently, used as a testing ground for trainee soldiers, who had to prove their worth by spending a night in the exhibit) and the Golden Age of detective fiction between the wars when the Queens of Crime (Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers) ruled.

Worsley’s book is stuffed with interesting insights into our love of crime, although sometimes the pacing can be a little uneven, no doubt because of its inception as a television programme. A chapter each on Christie and Sayers, but none on Marsh, seems slightly strange. However, as a guilty pleasure or a pleasant pastime, murder removed from reality still thrills us (one in three books sold today is a crime novel), and Worsley captures this bloody love affair very well.

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