No one does a good murder like the British.

No one does a good murder like the British.

“In his essay ‘Decline of the English Murder’, George Orwell describes for us the most satisfying kind of killer.”

Everyone loves a good murder, except their own. After all, sales of newspapers spike whenever there’s a story involving a grisly murder, and one in three of the books sold today are crime novels. More than perhaps any other nation on the planet, the British are particularly fond of reading about murders, whether real or imagined. From the Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811, the first murders to cause widespread national panic, right up until the films of Alfred Hitchcock, this book covers various aspects of his national obsession.

The author, Lucy Worsley, is a a brilliant narrator, and the book was written alongside her filming of a TV series on the same topic. Tragically, I don’t remember this being broadcast – although it was only on about a year ago – but I did see Worsley present a documentary about the Georgians earlier this year and loved her funny, almost whimsical style. She knows her stuff, and is just as thrilled by the topic as the rest of her fellow countrymen. She inserts herself into the narrative, adding in her adventures filming the series that take her around the country, investigating true murders and handling the grisly souveniers from the events.

The book opens detailing the aforementioned Ratcliffe Highway Murders, which involved the bloody deaths of a family that shocked the nation. This was in the days before there was an official police force, meaning that neighbours trampled the crime scene and much evidence was lost. Of course, this is also long before anyone understood things like DNA. Reading about murders was originally fascinating because they tended to end with the hanging of the guilty party, but times moved on and soon people began to love reading about the solving of crimes, allowing for creations like Sherlock Holmes to appear much later in the century. Before that, people enjoyed sensationalist literature and would line up in their thousands to see plays, hear stories and watch puppet shows that told of grisly deaths. Madame Tussaud and her waxworks became a great tourist attraction around the time too, as people became fascinated with her figures of famous criminals.

The book carries on through the changing tastes of the public, and indeed the changing tastes of murderers, such as during the Victorian era when poisons became the ultimate choice, and suddenly everyone from a ne’er-do-well on the street to your own doctor could be the one to finish you off. Finally, the book slips into the Golden Age of detective fiction between the two world wars, when Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and, of course, Agatha Christie, were producing their work. It ends by showing how even these stories came to an end, to be replaced by thrillers and the up-and-coming new invention: film. Throughout it all, the British have retained their taste for blood.

Lucy Worsley and the Usual Suspects

Lucy Worsley and the Usual Suspects

Of particular interest to me are the chapters about Christie (obviously) which pay particular attention to the question of how she became the greatest of her generation, leaving her colleagues languishing behind and never quite as well remembered, but I was also fascinated to read about the other great authors – Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and many more – who contributed to the nation’s ever-burgeoning need for their crime fix. This book shows how it may well be Dickens who is accredited with the first detective novel. It’s also really interesting to read about the formation of the police force, the history of Madame Tussaud and her house of wax, and how hanging was once a popular afternoon attraction, but slowly fell out of fashion as the time changed.

As a combination of the studies of murder, history and literature, I’m naturally hugely attracted to it, although it does expertly prove how quickly and dramatically history can be rewritten. One chapter is dedicated to Jack the Ripper, who at the time of Worsley’s writing, was still unidentified, and yet only this year his identity has supposedly been proven. Was this as much of a blow to other murder lovers as it was to me? I’d imagine it was – I always preferred the mystery. Although, even now, still not everyone seems to agree.

As a Brit, naturally I adored this book. Worsley notes towards the end that she’s worried if she’s come across as flippant in her treatment of murder and notes that it is indeed a harrowing and terrifying topic, and yet that is what seems to attract us to the notion. The British turned crime into an art, and with that allowed for some of the greatest literature, performances and attractions in history to occur. Times are changing though, she notes, with thrillers replacing the cosy crime of Agatha Christie et al, but one thing seems certain – the British love of a good murder hasn’t been killed off for good just yet.

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