The British do seem to be very slightly obsessed with murder. We have television shows virtually wall to wall – we even import them from all over the world – newspaper reports, films and, of course, books; but it seems this fascination is nothing new. In this book Lucy Worsley – a historian whose tv shows have explored the British home, 17th Century women and royal illness among other things – looks into the history of all things murderous. From Thomas de Quincy to Broadchurch we delve into what I am probably obliged to call the seedy underbelly of life and along the way we learn quite a lot about waxworks, popular publishing and the history of forensic science. Our cast of characters includes Madame Tussaud herself, Dr Jekyll (and Mr Hyde, naturally), Charles Dickens and Dr William Palmer (who seemed to specialise in strychnine and may have been responsible for the phrase ‘What’s your poison’….) and most of the great crime novelists of the 19th and early 20th century get namechecked.
Many of the historical cases were ones which I had heard of – mostly via the works of Dorothy L. Sayers, of whom I am a huge fan – and I was very interested to see how, as life became less dangerous for many, the enjoyment of the ‘murder industry’ grew until today, we are told, one in every three books sold is a crime novel. And although today’s crime fiction is far more graphic than anything from the pen of Agatha Christie we can at least take comfort in the fact that we no longer show up in droves to visit the actual scene of gristly killings before the police have even taken away the body, and we also don’t, generally, collect souvenirs of famous murders and executions.
As Lucy Worsley moves chronologically from the Georgian era to the immediate aftermath of World War 2 we see how our view of murder has changed but how reading about it has become almost a comfort to us (in my house Midsomer Murders is usually referred to as ‘Murder Most Reassuring’). Certainly until recently a common feature of most crime fiction is that wrongdoing is caught and punished – crime, in fictional terms, doesn’t pay – which seems to appeal to a natural sense of justice. I do enjoy modern crime fiction but, I must admit, prefer to read the stories from the Golden Age (did I mention how much I love Dorothy L. Sayers? I spent my teens wanting to marry Lord Peter Wimsey….).
I have decided quite recently that I read for plot rather than purely for the quality of the writing. We are told, in a Very British Murder, that ‘the literature of murder tells us not what people thought they ought to read. It tells us what they really read’. This book has given me lots of ideas of where to go to for my next crime fix and I can hold my head high knowing I am upholding a great British tradition…