New BBC TV series on its way: A Very British Murder
I’ve spent part of the weekend clearing out old research notes and making some new folders marked ‘Murder’. No, not a new hobby, just a new TV series on its way. ’A Very British Murder’, its working title, was announced by the BBC this week: read the official press release here.
We’re so early on we hardly know what we’re going to cover yet, but let me begin with George Orwell in 1946:
‘It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out on a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. A cup of mahogany-brown tea has put you just in the right mood. The sofa cushions are soft, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant. In these blissful circumstances, what is it you want to read about?
Naturally, about a murder.’
In this essay, ‘The Decline of English Murder’, Orwell goes on to outline the perfect murderer. Ideally, he’s a solicitor or doctor. He’s chairman of the local Conservative Party, or maybe a campaigner against the demon drink. He commits his crime out of passion for his secretary, but he’s really driven by fear of public shame: it’s easier for him to poison his wife than to go through the public scandal of divorcing her.
Orwell also puts his finger on something important about murder before the war: it was still something written about and read about. Today murder comes to us through photos, the TV news, or disturbing CCTV images. But then the fascination of murder lay on the printed page, and it’s the literary, artistic nature of crime that we’re going to look at in ‘A Very British Murder’.
We’re going to examine how the British became so obsessed with murder, as they were, from 1810 onwards. Our two bookends will be Orwell’s essay, of 1946, which really marks the end of murder as entertainment. Our starting point will be Thomas Quincey’s essay, ‘On Murder Considered As One Of The Fine Arts’. He was inspired by the so-called Ratcliff Highway murders of 1811, which really marked the beginning of the gruesome correlation between lurid reporting of a crime, and a massive spike in the sales of newspapers.
As the Victorian age wore on, biographies of murderers were among its publishing sensations. In 1849, 2.5 million people bought a rather rushed biography of Frederick and Marie Manning, the suburban couple who killed Marie’s lover and buried him under the kitchen floor. Their execution was attended by Charles Dickens, who used Marie as a model for his murderous maid in Bleak House.
And if you couldn’t get to a public hanging, you could at least meet murderers face to face in the pseudo-scientific ‘Chamber of Comparative Physiognomy’ at Madame Tussaud’s. Or watch them re-enacting their crimes on the stage, at the music hall or in puppet theatres. Or you could buy the merchandising, such as – a particular favourite of mine – ceramic ornaments depicting the houses where notable murders had taken place.
Alongside the rise of the murderer, of course, we have the rise of the detective. In real life – like Mr Whicher, who had Suspicions – and in fiction. I especially like girl detectives, having grown up believing that I was Harriet Vane from the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries reborn. Having a female sleuth in a novel allowed writers to send female characters bursting out of the usual restrictions of class and home, and have them follow suspects, wear disguises, spy on other people, and use their intelligence to right wrongs.
Now, it’s pretty obvious that the art of murder reflects society’s darkest fears back at itself. The Ratcliff Highway Murders at the start of our period reflect fears about the newly expanding city, stranger danger, and urban predators in ill-lit streets. But murder becomes more middle-class as the nineteenth century matures. We think of Sherlock Holmes as living in a world of gas lighting and hansom cabs and opium dens, but actually may of his cases take place in places like Godalming, and he commutes out to the Home Counties on the train to solve them.
The middle class murder leads us inexorably to Agatha Christie, and Ngaio Marsh, and all the twentieth century crime writers whom I love.
But why does it all come to an end? Well, the war. And cataclysm, and unimaginable nastiness.
Murders after the war – the Moors murders, for example – are just too awful to be fun any more. Let me leave you with the prelapsarian, pre-war words of Dorothy L Sayers, no longer true at all…
‘Death seems to provide the minds of the Anglo Saxon race with a greater fund of innocent amusement than any other subject’.
I’ve been reading:
Wilkie Collins, Armadale (1866)
Kate Colquhoun, Mr Briggs’ Hat (2011)
Judith Flanders, The Invention of Murder (2011)
P.D. James, Talking about Detective Fiction (2009)
Michael Sims (ed.), The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime (2011)
Kate Summerscale, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2009)