Why do we love a good murder? “Any night of the week, you’ll turn on the TV and see someone being horribly murdered,” says historian Lucy Worsley, who’s been tuning into dastardly deeds for her new series A Very British Murder. “I don’t want to trivialise the subject, but I’m fascinated by how society takes pleasure in crime, probably in a way that makes us feel a bit guilty.
“In a way, it’s a product of being civilised. Popular obsession with murder really only starts with the industrial revolution, with people coming in from the country to live in cities where they don’t know their neighbours. Before that, working people worried about famine or disease or being press-ganged into the navy. But by the time the late Georgians are living in cities, they can afford to worry about less likely things, such as being murdered. And that preoccupation has continued to the present day.”
Public appetite for killing, suggests Worsley, dates precisely to the Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811. The unsolved mystery of a shopkeeper’s family slaughtered in their home in Wapping, east London, gripped the imagination of “murder fanciers” across the nation and inspired the poet Thomas de Quincey to write his treatise On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.
By the 1820s, murder was the subject of countless street ballads and popular melodrama. The real life story of Maria Marten, shot by her lover in a Suffolk barn, played to packed and ecstatic houses up and down the country and the unfortunate young woman’s gravestone was chipped to pieces by souvenir hunters.
“From our point of view, Victorian melodrama, with the audience laughing and booing and wallowing in gore is ridiculous. But to the Victorians,” Worsley points out, “it was catharsis. The loved to see the capture of the murderer at the end of the story.”
By the middle of the 19th century, in line with the rise in popular literacy, the murder mystery had made its way into fiction.
“The genre comes into its own in the 1850s with the ‘sensation novel’, where the novelists’ intention is to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck,” says Worsley. “The sensation novelists were seen as trashy and subversive. I suppose Dickens is the best known of the literary giants who could be described as a crime writer.”
In 1853, Dickens published Bleak House. The character of Hortense, the homicidal lady’s maid, was based on Maria Manning, a real murderess whose 1849 trial became a cause célèbre.
“Bleak House also has Inspector Bucket, who can claim to be the first fictional detective,” points out Worsley. “He was based on a real policeman called Inspector Fields. Dickens used to follow him about on the beat. Similarly, the character of Nancy in Oliver Twist is based on Eliza Grimwood, a murdered prostitute. Everyone knew that she had been horribly mutilated, but the killer was never caught. So in a way, by bringing her killer – Bill Sikes – to justice, Dickens was bringing satisfaction to the public. You could say he made murder respectable for the middle classes.”
The massive popularity of Sherlock Holmes, introduced by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, is, Worsley believes, linked to the case of Jack the Ripper. “The Ripper goes on his killing spree just a month after Sherlock Holmes comes into print. And he’s a completely new kind of criminal. He’s motiveless, out of control, a force of nature cutting a swathe through all these women, and the bodies are piling up. I think it would have been comforting for people, in that summer of fear, to think: ‘If only we had Sherlock Holmes – he’d find the killer.’ In many ways Sherlock is like the flip side of Jack the Ripper. He’s mysterious, he doesn’t like to make friends. He has unfortunate habits such as the drug-taking. But you can totally rely on Sherlock. He’s like the Ripper’s ‘good twin’ and I’m convinced that’s why the character took off in such a spectacular fashion.”
The Ripper also represents the apogee of the “black-hearted villain”, irredeemable and unrepentant. “The growing fascination with murderers was definitely connected to the falling away of capital punishment for other crimes,” argues Worsley. “If you think about a highwayman being executed in the mid-18th century, people would would have thought him dashing and gallant. There was more sympathy for criminals in general because there was a sense that if you stole a string of sausages, you might be hanged for it. But in the 19th century, for many crimes, capital punishment was replaced by transportation. So if you’re on the gallows, you’re probably a murderer. And so murder itself becomes elevated in the public imagination – uniquely, purely evil.”
Similarly, the cultural watershed of the First World War decisively changed the course of fictional murder. “Postwar, the detective story is a very different device. You don’t solve the mystery though brawn, or heroism or gallantry. You solve it through brains. Quite simply, I think people had had enough of blood and gore. They’d been so widely affected by death and horror and violence that all of that just disappears from the detective stories of the 1920s.
The murder tends to happen ‘off-stage’, as it were, and the body is not generally horribly mutilated,” Worsley goes on. “Agatha Christie, for example, rarely describes any actual blood. The emphasis is on the cerebral processes of the detective who could be a little old lady like Miss Marple or a funny little Belgian like Hercule Poirot.
“Christie’s novels of the 1920s and 30s,” Worsley says, “are the Golden Age of the detective story. They have this very glossy surface and incredibly intricate plots. Christie herself sets out her philosophy in an essay where she says that her books are for busy people, the workers of the world, who just want a bit of escapism. So her murder mysteries are not about the great questions of life, or even very much about emotions. They’re more intellectual puzzles. Eventually, of course, everyone gets bored with this and the fact that there is no mention of any of the stuff that is happening in the real world – the rise of fascism, for example – and as these cold winds blow through the 1930s, public taste turns to the grittier fiction of Raymond Chandler or Graham Greene.”
With the arrival of Alfred Hitchcock and the cultural dominance of film and television, the cycle, says Worsley, starts again. “There’s a brilliant clip of Hitchcock saying, “I’m not interested in good and evil. I’m not interested in the villain being caught... What I would like to do is send electric shocks through the seats in the cinema and make the audience feel fear, and horror and suspense.” Which is exactly what those sensation novelists were doing in the 19th century. So it comes more or less full circle. If you look at popular culture today, it’s full of just as much horror and gore and crime as we see in Victorian Britain. Look at ITV’s Broadchurch – that’s really a very nasty subject, but it was immensely popular.
“But I’m not just interested in the history of murder,” says Worsley. “It’s also the history of crime, and of literacy and of justice. It’s a way of seeing more deeply into society.”
A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC4.