Writer of the month: A very British murder
A Very British Murder is Lucy Worsley’s account of a national obsession – a tale of dark deeds and guilty pleasures.
Lucy Worsley is Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity which opens up The Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace and Kensington Palace to more than three million visitors a year. Before that, she worked for English Heritage and Glasgow Museums. As well as writing books about history, she presents history television programmes for the BBC.
This talk was part of Writer of the Month – a series of talks, in which each month a high profile author shared their experiences of using original records in their writing.
Now before I get going with my topic today of murder I hope you’ll bear with me if I say a word or two about my work at Historic Royal Palaces. We are the independent charity that looks after the unoccupied royal palaces of London. We get no money from the government or the royal family and we deserve your financial support. We have six sites now, cause we’ve just taken on the management of Hillsborough Castle, the Queen’s official residence in Northern Ireland. But the biggest of our six is the Tower of London where my fellow curators and I are responsible for looking after the instruments of torture and the arms and armour, and of course the Crown Jewels. And sometimes when I’m out and about, giving a talk people ask me ‘What goes on in the Jewel House late at night after all the visitors have gone home?’
Most days though, you’ll find me at Hampton Court palace, that’s where I’ve been this morning. Our curators’ office is up a spiral staircase of 51 steps, just off the chapel court. It’s a brilliant place to work. Now at this point in my talk I usually ask is anyone going to guess the number of rooms in Hampton Court Palace, but because I came here last year I think that somebody here probably can remember the answer. Does anybody remember the answer to the question the number of rooms in Hampton Court Palace; we were having a little private debate about this beforehand? Nobody? Well in that case, guess. Guess away. Let’s have a guess.
[Audience member: 700]. 700, that’s a good start. Do I have any advances on 700? [Audience laughs. Audience member: 1000]. 1000, we’re going in the right direction. [Audience laughs]. But to save time I shall… yeah [Audience member: 1200]. Oh, close, very close indeed. The answer is 1324. I must admit that includes some quite large cupboards. Today though, I’m going to talk about -not my job – today I’m going to talk about my hobby which is murder. I’d like to start off with a quotation from George Orwell.
Here he is writing in 1944: ‘It’s Sunday afternoon,’ George Orwell says. ‘You put your feet up on the sofa, you settle your spectacles on your nose, and open up the News of the World. [Audience laughs]. A cup of mahogany-brown tea, has put you into just the right mood. In these blissful circumstances what is it that you want to read about? Well naturally, being British people, we want to read about a murder.’ And I am with him there. I have to admit I’ve always been an avid consumer of detective fiction.
I like the way that detectives, like historians, like me, have to work from the little clues and snatches of evidence that survives and I think that the history of the detective fiction is worth studying because it also is the history of society, of justice, of gender. It’s the history of rel…literature and it’s also the history of literacy, how people learnt to read.
Now, in this essay, which is called ‘The Decline of English Murder’ – in ‘The Decline of English Murder’ George Orwell goes on to describe the most satisfying kind of killer to read about. And it might disturb you to know that the description probably fits some of you here this afternoon. [Audience laughs]. Cause the ideal murder is… is ultra respectable. He’s, he, is either a doctor or a solicitor. Very often he’s the chairman of the local Conservative Party, [Audience laughs] and he commits his crime out of passion for his secretary, but really he’s driven by the fear of public scandal. It’s easier for his to poison his wife, in Orwell’s mind in 1944, than it is for him to go through the scandal of divorcing her and then having to go down to the golf club and face all of his chums.
So the archetypal murderer, in Orwell’s mind at this particular period, was a pillar of the community, probably a supporter of The National Archives. But it wasn’t ever thus. This notion of the ideal murderer has changed over time and around 1800, which is where our story starts, people asked to imagine a murderer would probably have come up with a much more heroic figure, I think. Maybe a gallant highwayman or a charismatic career criminal. They were much more cuddly characters in the late 18th century. They often repented on the gallows, at least in people’s minds with all the women in the crowd going ‘ooh… isn’t he handsome’ and ‘doesn’t he look like Adam Ant’. But today, by contrast, I would suggest that our scariest, our most enjoyable murderers are much less cosy. Today we like a psychopathic, nihilistic, motiveless serial killer, don’t we?
Now my talk today isn’t to be so much about actual crimes, although I will mention one or two of them, but it’s really about how the British people have enjoyed and consumed this idea of murder as entertainment, as art and as fiction. It’s a phenomenon that dates right from the start of the 19th century and which continues to the present day.
There are three separate stages to my talk. Firstly, I’d like to suggest that this idea that murder can entertain gets born in the working class entertainments and journalism and theatre based on violence crimes, crimes like stabbings and bludgeonings in the earlier years of the 19th century. Secondly, in the Victorian age I think the focus shifts, I think that we move on to more sophisticated middle class crimes, crimes like poisoning. And then lastly, today, I’d like to talk about the so called golden age of detective fiction. That great crime wave that takes place between the pages of books in the 1920s and 1930s, in which murder gets sanitized, if you like, it goes up market. It seems to happen mainly in country houses and there is very little blood or violence or mess at all.
So where did it all begin? Back in Wapping in East London in the 1811, I’d suggest. Now this part of town, down in the docks was full of sailors, and travellers and strangers and one night in 1811 four people got murdered all at once. This was the father, a mother, their baby and their apprentice and it was in their shop and home that you can see here, on a road called the Ratcliff Highway. The road is still there but the house is gone.
Now what was the significance of this? Well in the previous year, 1810, out of a population of nearly ten million British people only 15 people had been convicted of the crime of murder. Not a large number. Now in one single night we have four people being killed all at once and this set off a national panic. On the night of this particular killing the Marr family’s maid, their housemaid, escaped and that’s because she had gone out. She had gone out shopping to buy some food and she came back much later on and she was knocking at that green door there and she found that it was locked and bolted. Nobody had let her in and yet she could hear somebody creeping about inside.
This next quotation is from the contemporary writer Thomas De Quincy, and he wrote an essay about this crime and here he is imagining what Margret the maid was feeling:
‘What was it, on the stairs, was heard a creaking sound? The dreadful footsteps were heard advancing along the little narrow passage to the door. The steps – oh heavens! whose steps? – have paused at the door. The very breathing can be heard.’
And I think that there’s something immensely modern about this passage. There’s a continuum, I think, between this sort of thing and the horror films that we like to scare ourselves silly with on a Sunday night, watching television today. On the night of the murder, what happened eventually was a neighbour broke into the house and he found the four dead bodies of the Marr family but nobody would ever be punished for this crime. No credible suspects were ever thought. It was outrageous, it was scandalous but it also wasn’t surprising given the fact that the way murders were investigated at the time.
London did not yet have, no city yet had a proper police force. There were police forces but lots and lots of little ones. There were implied by, employed by individual parishes, almost like private security guards. So each parish would have its own constable to keep order in the day time and for the night time they would have the night’s watchmen with his lantern. Now the night’s watchmen here doesn’t exactly inspire you with confidence does he? [Audience laughs] Because he must be at least 95 years old and this is a, this is a theme of night watchmen, you might remember them from Shakespeare, they were comedic characters.
In Covent Garden though, let me tell you this, in London’s red light district they had a deliberate policy of employing aged night watchmen. They had trouble with young ones, [Audience laughs] they were no good. On account of the connection which subsisted between them and the prostitutes who withdrew them from their duty while depredations were committing.
Now the main way of catching criminals when policing took place at this really local level was to offer a reward, and this had worked when people lived in villages and generally knew who the likely suspects were going to be. It didn’t work in a community like Wapping where people no longer knew who was living next door to them, and the local magistrates of Wapping get a whole lot of stick at this point for failing to capture the criminal. ‘What were they doing?’ people said.
Well here’s the answer- one of them would be writing novels, another studying politics, a third immersed in divinity, a fourth speculating on the girls that went by, a fifth gnawing his pen for an unfinished couplet and the sixth playing the fiddle. At the same time though, people did feel a great reluctance to have a proper police force. This was felt to be something absolutist, something that they would do in France where the officers would be the spies of the state, spying on free born Englishmen. But eventually these arguments, kicked off by the Ratcliff Highway killer did collimate in a big decision.
In 1829 this risk to public safety caused by life in the city had come to outweigh libertarian argument and in 1829 the Metropolitan Police Force gets set up in London, followed by many other police forces elsewhere. They were put into blue uniforms deliberately to show that they were different from the army. They weren’t the army. Nobody wanted to see red coated soldiers on the streets. But because there was a great debate about the founding of the police they weren’t warmly welcomed and a lot of people called them the Blue Devils.
Now another consequence of this four person murder, the Ratcliff Highway murder was that the fear spread through the media. This is a broadside; it’s the forerunner of our modern newspapers. It’s printed on just one piece of paper and this is the cheapest, easiest way of learning about current affairs in Georgian England and now the printers of these broadsides realize that what they then called a ‘good murder’ they would get good sales, it’s the beginning of a correlation that still exists to this day. When there was what they called ‘stunning good murder’, a ‘stunning good murder’ was a really big gory one, they would also include pictures.
Now, [Audience laughs] this looks laughably naive doesn’t it? This particular murderer has dismembered his victim. The broadside as well as the picture would include the criminal’s confession and very often his last words on the gallows and it didn’t matter if he had not yet been hanged because the journalist would just make them up. This is how the news spread, in a way that’s was not quite fact but not quite fiction. It lies somewhere in between. And these were travelling all over the country very, very quickly, being bought in there hundreds of thousands.
And so Thomas De Quincy, who I mentioned earlier, the writer, produced this very famous essay, which parodied this whole new phenomenon. His essay was called ‘On Murder as Considered as one of the Fine Arts’ and in it he really pinned down and defined this ghoulish new interest in crime, being fuelled by the media. He said that the British had become a nation of murder fanciers. And he imagined people as forming this kind of really perverted club where they would get together and like connoisseurs they would discuss the best murders of the age, which ones had been the most creative, the most stylish, the most inventive.
Now he’s obviously mocking this, its satire, he’s saying this ridiculous thing but he was also mocking not only the broadsides but plays and murder tourism that had taken off as a phenomenon like the Jack the Ripper tours of today and memorabilia and souvenirs and what would lead to the whole body of detective fiction. And, I think it’s really striking that its development went hand in hand with everything that we might think of as making up civilisation.
If you had lived in 18th century Britain you probably would have lived in a village and your greatest fears, I would suggest, would be dying of famine or disease or maybe in a war. But in the 19th century people are moving to the towns. They were now a little safer from the dangers of nature, they have a police force, they have sewers, they have gas lighting but at the same time they now have the luxury and a luxury it is of worrying about things that are really inherently unlikely, things like getting murdered by the person who lives next door to you. So I would argue that this is an essential part of modern life and it goes with all of these other aspects of life in the city that we still enjoy today like paranoia and anxiety and neurosis. Encouraging thought this isn’t it? [Audience laughs].
Now the year after this essay of Thomas De Quincy’s another really big and brutal murder came along to spice up this new strand of the entertainment business. It happened in 1828 in a sleepy Suffolk village called Polstead, scene of a notorious crime. The victim was Maria Marten, a young lady. She was the daughter of the local mole catcher and it was her plan to elope with her lover, a gentleman called William Corder and they met up for their for their assignations in The Red Barn on the hill behind Maria’s house but instead of marrying her, William Corder killed her and buried her beneath the barn’s floor.
So this is called Murder in the Red Barn. William Corder was captured, quite easily, he was tried at Bury, St Edmunds and he was found guilty and his body was dissected for the edification of a group of medical students from Cambridge University. But this crime, although it was nasty, brutish and short, it really struck a chord. Everybody in Britain in 1828 knew the story and it’s left a really long shadow through culture this one has.
As well as the usual broadsides, when it came to Murder in the Red Barn you could buy a song sheet so you could learn to sing the ballad about the crime. And it might surprise you to know that you probably even know the tune yourselves and that’s because it crops up in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia Folk Songs for String Orchestra, do you know that?
So here is the song beginning with William Corder regretting his crimes on the gallows, he’s speaking to us. That’s see if you recognize this tune it goes: ‘Come all ye thoughtless young, men a warning take by me. And think upon my unhappy fate to be hanged upon a tree. My name is William Cor…’ I saw some nods, some people, some people do recognise it. And I think that the point of a song like this is as a massive public safety warning. If you imagine that everybody in Britain in the..1828 was singing this song it’s as if telling all the young men in earshot ‘Don’t go killing your girlfriends and burying them in barns it will end badly for you.’ [Audience laughs].
I’ve just got to share with you my, my absolute favourite verse that comes next? This one is pure ghoulish enjoyment. ‘After the horrible deed was done, she lay weltering in her gore. Her bleeding mangled body he buried, underneath the red barn floor.’ Thank you. [Audience laughs and claps].
Now even better than the song of the crime was the melodrama of Maria Marten’s Murder in the Red Barn. Melodrama was a very specialized form of late Georgian theatre. It was full of black and white passion. There was audience participation. It was a bit like a modern pantomime. Murders were particularly put on at the Old Vic on the Southbank in London. So many were performed there that the Old Vic was called the Blood Tub. [Audience laughs].
Here we got some instructions from a 19th century theatre handbook for how the melodramatic actor should express despair. This is despair: ‘He rolls the eyes and gnashes with the teeth. Groans, expressive of inward torture, accompany the words.’ So he’s not exactly subtle. And it’s no wonder that Punch Magazine satirizes the melodramatic actor who is, we are told, ‘murdered at least twice a week, commits parricide several times in the course of the year, and is torn by remorse every night at about nine o’clock.’ [Audience laughs].
But melodrama wasn’t just restricted to the people who lived in London and could get to the Old Vic. If you lived in the countryside you could still see the story of Murder in the Red Barn performed by the travelling puppet theatre. Here we have from the Victoria and Albert museum a rather beautiful pair of marinates of William Corder and Maria Marten, used to recreate her murder on the little puppet stage. Their features are exaggerated to meet the stock characters that you get in any murder, any melodrama. So we know that William Corder is the murderer thanks to the murderous moustache [Audience laughs] and we know that Maria Marten is the young virginal heroine because of her lovely pink cheeks and her white dress.
Maria, the puppet Maria, has a very special feature. She has a special lock of hair at the front that can be made to pull up by its own separate string and that is so when William Corder is killing her, he can drag her by the hair around the stage and this was a very popular part of a melodrama.
Oliver Twist was also performed on stage as a melodrama and when Bill Sykes killed Nancy, you know climatic, very famous scene, he too would drag her around by the hair. Here we have a spectator’s report: ‘Nancy was always dragged around by the hair, and after this effort Sikes looked up defiantly to the gallery and he would be answered by a loud and fearful curse, yelled by the whole mass like a Handel Festival chorus’ and that for me is the whole point of the melodrama.
Today they seem funny, to us, but that’s because we’ve lost the context. This was serious stuff. At the time going to the melodrama aloud people to let off steam. They were frightened and angry about these murderers they were reading about and this is how they expressed their feelings. They went out, I think, feeling better.
Now you could also purchase a longer lasting memory of the story in the form of these strange ceramic souvenirs. Here we have Maria Marten and William Corder represented in ceramics in the Red Barn itself. They’re usually shown in the early stages of the story; they’re still in love, hand in hand, going off to the barn. When I see that I want to shout ‘Maria, run away! Get out of there.’ And you might wonder what the point of these was, again, because I think that if you had them on your mantelpiece at home, as people did, you could perhaps when you had guests around use it to get the conversation going cause your friend might say “Oh what’s this then?” and you’d say ‘Well this is Maria Marten and this is the Red…’ can you see how this could get the party started. [Audience laughs].
Then there was a more specialized trade in actual relics from the crime scene. As you can see here people stole the boards from the Red Barn, in order to make them into souvenirs, into little things like snuff boxes, other little knick knacks. They’ve got a great collection of these in the museum in Bury, St Edmonds. They’ve also got there the, the actual pistols, so we’re told, used to shoot Maria and, even better, wow this is great. It looks like a book but if you read that inscription inside it tells you that after the dissection of the body of William Corder his skin was tanned and it was turned into leather used to make the book’s binding. [Audience nervous laugh].
It gets worse. [Audience laugh]. Because this ladies and gentleman, best of all, is the shrivelled scalp of William Corder, and that town at the bottom is his little ear. It was displayed, for money, almost immediately after his hanging and to this day it remains the most popular and celebrated item in the museum at Bury, St Edmunds. [Audience laugh]. I have had the, the experience of handling it.
I held it up near my face and I could see the little ginger fuzz of his hair that had grown out of his skin after he was killed and it aroused in me a mixture of emotions that are essential to what I am talking about, this afternoon. Firstly I felt, ew, that’s disgusting. Secondly I felt a bit guilty, ‘cause I was handling the remains a real human being in a disrespectful manor. But thirdly, and I have to admit this and I’m not proud of it, I felt such glee and I, it is great. [Audience laugh].
Now the people I’ve discussed thus far, at the Ratcliff Highway murder or the Murder in the Red Barn were pretty low down in the social scale. But as time went on this activity of enjoying a murder, in inverted commas, became increasingly respectable higher up.
Victorian murder became something of a middle class pastime. It began to take place, both in fiction and in real life, at the heart of what was supposed to be a safe place, the respectable home. And with the accession of Queen Victoria came a new fear that of being poisoned. Dr William Palmer of Staffordshire, whose medicine chest this is said to be was the classic murderer for the Victorian age. He kept his strychnine, we’re told, in these little lead drawers at the bottom. Now, not quite 100% sure that’s absolutely his chest.
Now Dr William Palmer looked on the face of it a respectable doctor but in fact he was in debt. In 1855 he was gambling at the horse races trying to put things right financially and his friend, his buddy won a lot of money. William Palmer toasted him with a brandy, well done, but the buddy fell sick. William Palmer gave him a cup of coffee, the friend got worse. After the coffee a bowl of soup and this finished his friend of off completely. [Audience laughs].
William Palmer is often credited with introducing a novelty into the English language, the friendly offer of a drink with the words: ‘What’s your poison?’ [Audience laughs]. Now he was acting as a good poisoner in doing that because it’s good practice, take note, its good practice to give small doses of poison to build up a pattern of ill health in your victim so that finally when they die everyone says ‘O, he’s been ill for ages.’
All of this came out in William Palmer’s trail which was followed with enormous interest and enthusiasm. It was one of the courtroom dramas of the 19th century. It brought to prominence a new type of medical expert, these gentleman here who, they look like they are setting fire to a condom, they’re not. [Audience laughs]. These gentlemen are the analytical chemists and, they now come to the fore because their skills were needed to catch these increasingly sophisticated poisoners.
You could only poison somebody if you had access to their food and that means that poisoning is the weapon of the relative or maybe your housemaid or somebody else who you trust like you’re doctor, in other words it brings fear into the hearts of the middle class home. And the Victorians believed that it was linked to the growing industry of life insurance, because if you think about it now even middle class people who taken out a policy were actually giving their relatives a reason to bump them off.
And this is the flip side of Victorian virtue. They thought they were making their world cleaner and safer by these new drugs that they had. They thought they were planning for the future with their life insurance policies and yet, by doing these things, ironically, they were also creating new dangers.
Now in 1860 we find murder going right up market. The first real life country house murder mystery took place here. This is Road Hill House in the village of road in Wiltshire. And this case was brilliantly intriguing because it took place in a mansion that had been locked up for the night. The only possible suspects were the 12 people in the house. That’s three live-in servants, the father, four children from his first marriage, his second wife and three younger children from his second marriage. The victim was the second youngest of all of these children, a little boy of four who was snatched from his bed in the night and he was discovered the next day with his throat slit. It’s a very horrible case, this. He was found down the household’s outdoor privy. And years later his teenage half-sister, Constance, admitted that she’d done it. I think she was 16 at the time.
Now the case had it all, in terms of the enjoyment of a murder. It had a vulnerable victim, it had this glamorous country house setting and a solution that the mystery was soluble. It had to be somebody in the house. Anybody who devoted the time to it, people thought, could probably work it out from all of the clues and descriptions published in these very detailed newspaper accounts. And the nation now fell prey to a pleasurable new sensation called detective fever. You may have experienced this yourself during the trial of Oscar Pistorius for example.
This is the definition of detective fever by Wilkie Collins, the novelist: ‘Do you feel,’ he says, ‘an uncomfortable heat in the pit of your stomach and a nasty thumping at the top of your head. I call it the detective fever.’ The evidence that Britain was experiencing detective fever in the 1860s can be seen here at The National Archives. It lies in these thick stacks of letters, written by ordinary members of the public during the course of the Road Hill House investigation to the police. And each of these letters contains the writers own personable solutions to the mystery.
Why, why were they doing this? Well I think that they were still acting slightly in the old citizen school of justice where it was the duty of every citizen to help catch the victim, help catch the criminal, and they didn’t quite yet trust the police to do the job properly. And what’s really funny is all these people expected their letters to be answered and by in large they were. It’s incredible. Here is a lady who lives in Westbourne Grove, she’s never been to Wiltshire, knows nothing really, but she writes into the police saying: ‘The murderer is the brother of William Nutt, son in law of Mrs Holly the laundress.’ It’s like a game of Cluedo isn’t it? [Audience laughs]. And the police are to found to be replying to all these letters saying: ‘No, they did not think that chloroform had been used because no trace of it was found in the victim’s body and yes they had themselves considered the possibility that the nursemaid and the master were having an affair.’
The twists and the turns of this particular crime soon appeared in literature, particularly in the what’s known as the sensation novel of the 1860s. These brilliant new types of novel like The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins with its good claim to be the first real detective story. And they were called sensation novels because, as well as being sensational, they wanted to produce actual sensations in the reader like shivering or shaking, an insatiable desire to stay up all night and finish the thing.
People said that they were written with the intention of harrowing the mind making the flesh creep, causing the hair to stand on end, giving shocks to the nervous system and generally unfitting the public for the prosaic avocations of life. If you have not yet read Lady Audley’s Secret, for example by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, ooh you’ve got a treat ahead of you. [Audience laughs]. This will definitely unfit you for the prosaic avocations of life.
Now back in the 1850s we heard about the role of the analytical chemists in the Palmer case, who started being able to make the corpse speak through science. When we get to the 1880s there’s a new phenomenon to look at the science of the study of the scene of a crime. And here a certain fictional detective leads the way. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had been a medical student in Edinburgh under a very logical and brilliant instructor called Dr Bell. He treated Queen Victoria when she was in Scotland. And Dr Bell was very keen on the deductive technique of diagnosis and later in life Doyle said he that he learnt from Dr Bell and he decided to create a detective hero who would treat crime in the way Dr Bell treated disease through deduction and the result of course was Sherlock Holmes.
Sherlock Holmes was also a very good scientist. In the first story A Study in Scarlett, Arthur Conan Doyle shows him at work at the scene of a crime. Once he gets to where the body is Holmes looks at the body and then he looks at the room itself. This was new. We know what he did because he’s famous for it. He whipped a tape measure and large round magnifying glass from his pocket and with these two implements he trotted around the room, sometimes stopping, occasionally kneeling, once laying flat on his face and in one place he gathered up a pile of grey dust and put it away in an envelope.
And he did that because he knew it was cigar ash and because Sherlock Holmes has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the type of ash of the different types of cigar he could work out what the murderer had been smoking. Now this idea of ‘a SOCO’, as we would call them, a Scene of Crimes Officer, is very familiar today but 1887 it was a novelty.
But what I like about Sherlock Holmes is not so much his strength, his logic, his brilliance as his weakness and as everybody knows he would have led a saddled life without, without his friend Dr Watson, who provides the emotional intelligence to go with Holmes’ intellectual intelligence.
Here’s a lovely little passage from one of the last Sherlock Holmes stories where we can see Watson’s warmth and Holmes’ coolness interacting. It’s this combination that I think is irresistible. In this scene Sherlock Holmes has, in the interest of research filled their room with poisoned gas, yeah, good idea. So as Dr Watson tells us:
‘I dashed from my chair, I threw my arms around Holmes and together we lurched through the door. Upon my words, Watson,’ said Holmes at last with an unsteady voice. ‘I owe you an apology. It was an unjustifiable experiment even for one’s self, and doubly so for a friend.’ [And] ‘You know,’ I answered with some emotion, for I have never seen so much of Holmes’ heart before, ‘that it is my greatest joy and privilege to help you.’ Now coming as it does towards the end of their very lengthy friendship, I think this is an immensely tender scene between the two of them.
Now everybody knows that Sherlock Holmes is brave, he’s active, he’s gallant, he’s even violent when necessary. After the First World War Sherlock Holmes was still in business, the last story wasn’t published until 1927 but he was getting a bit out of touch and I think that was because after four traumatic years tales of violence, tales of daring does seemed a bit out of place in a nation where nearly every home had lost a son.
And after the war detective writers, pretty much erased the violence from their stories and turned detection into a genteel art that’s was rather like doing a crossword puzzle or maybe some knitting. And that’s why we get the entrance of sedentary sleuths like Miss Marple or, of course, Hercule Poirot, a bit of a dandy as everybody knows. It was said of him; ‘I believe a speck of dust on his coat would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.’
And you’re never gonnna see old Hercule Poirot chasing after anybody or shooting them. And this so called Golden Age of detective fiction between the wars, not surprisingly, in light of what I’ve said, is dominated by women – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. And women because I think they tended towards subject matter that was detailed, that was domestic, stories with lots of female characters, the layering up of densely constructed plot through a process rather like weaving a tapestry.
And I think this more feminine view of the world went down well after the violence of World War One. The best of all of them in my view is in durable Dorothy L Sayers but I will admit that some people don’t like her, they think that the stories go on and on and on, there’s too much detail of how to look after pot plants and bell ringing and stuff like that. And Edmund Wilson, the distinguished literary critic of the New Yorker said, and he did have something of the point: ‘The British may not be the best writers in the world but they are the best doll writers.’ [Audience laughs]. And by 1934 there was a bit of a sense that the genre was getting a bit too cosy, it was getting stale.
This idea of detection as a game played out in a country house would take its final physical form in the board game of Cluedo, which appeared in 1949. But it had its forerunners in the 1930s when games like murder dossiers were very popular. You could buy one of these books, it’s a file of crime scene photos, testimony from witnesses, clues like here we have the hair, the matchstick, the cigarette ends and the bloodstained wallpaper. And you would read all of this and decide who done it and open the sealed envelope at the back with the answer in it. And the detective novelists themselves started to parody their own genre. You see this item that Dorothy L Sayers is holding here. This is a character called Eric the Skull who is the property of the Detection Club. A sort of mutual admiration society that was set up by all of these detective novelists. It developed its own arcane initiation ritual.
To join you had to have publish your own detective novel and then you had to put your hand on the head of Eric the Skull while his lights were illuminated with these red bulbs – this still goes on, the club still exists today- and you had to promise an oath that suggests that you weren’t taking this too seriously, okay? You had to promise that in all future novels you would observe a seemly moderation in the use of gangs, conspiracies, death rays, ghosts, hypnotism, trap doors, Chinamen, sleuth criminals and lunatics and utterly and to forever swear mysterious poisons unknown to science. Now in this world the great depression makes no impression at all, fascism seems never to have existed. And Alan Bennett came up with a very striking phrase for these kinds of detective stories, he didn’t call this the Golden age of detective fiction, he called it the snobbery with violence. [Audience laughs].
Change was inevitable and in the late 1930s a newer, harsher, morally ambivalent and more violent strand entered British crime fiction from America. The future would be represented by a notorious book of 1939 that was called ‘No Orchards for Miss Blandish.’ In ‘No Orchids for Miss Blandish’ there were eight full dressed murders, an uncountable number of casual killings, there was an exhumation with a very careful description of the stench, there was the flogging of Miss Blandish herself with a hose pipe and there was a torture of another woman with red hot cigarette ends.
Now if you think back to where we started, George Orwell’s essay on ‘The Decline of British Murder’, written in 1944 was regretting exactly this sort of thing. He was saying that at least the murders of old, the crimes of the Victorian age were crimes of passion; do remember that jealous bank manager? They weren’t just crimes of having nothing else to do, crimes of boredom, this is the really frightening thing, and the mindless violence of ‘No Orchids for Miss Blandish’ is not too different to some of the very nasty stuff you still see out there in popular culture today in films, in TV programmes and particularly in those horrible computer games where you can drive through the streets of Los Angeles randomly shooting at women.
Now today one in every three books sold is a crime novel. That’s a lot isn’t it? And today a lot of people would look down on them as well as trash, and often they are, but I do think it’s easy to forget that crime fiction was important because this was the sort of stuff that taught working class people how to enjoy reading and the literature of crime, the literature of murder tells us not what people thought they ought to read, it tells us what people really read. It’s a guilty pleasure, of course it is, but guilty pleasures that reveal about who we really are, I think.
I’ll leave you with a quotation from one of the mystery novelists of the 1930s. He couldn’t have put this any better, I think, it’s extremely prescient. He said that:
‘If he wishes to study the mysteries of our age, the historian of the future will probably turn not to statistics but to detective stories.’
Transcribed by Kyra Bains as part of a volunteer project, January 2015.