A Very British Murder: the Story of a National Obsession by Lucy Worsley

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A Very British Murder: the Story of a National Obsession by Lucy Worsley

Category: True Crime
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The British obsession with murder over the last two centuries, a study published to accompany a BBC TV series of the same name.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 312 Date: September 2013
Publisher: BBC
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781849906340

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The British are an illogical race. Short of genocide, murder is the worst, most shocking crime an individual can commit, yet it has become a kind of commodity which over the last years has been endlessly packaged as a mass market entertainment industry. We buy newspapers and magazines with blow-by-blow accounts of dreadful true life cases, we read thrillers, watch TV drama series and documentaries, and we can take part in murder mystery evenings and weekends at pubs and hotels.

In this book, published to accompany a BBC TV series of the same name, Lucy Worsley explores our paradoxical obsession through the ages with murder, tracing it back to the early 19th-century writer Thomas De Quincey. Best-remembered for his memoir ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’, he was an improvident hack, down on his luck, who needed to produce some articles for ready money, and in 1827 he came up with one titled ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’. He had the good fortune to be putting pen to paper shortly after one of the first notorious true life cases, the Ratcliff Highway Murders in east London in 1811. Hundreds of people came to look at the Marrs, the victims, as they lay dead on their beds – contamination of evidence at the crime scene was not yet a consideration. Murder as a tourist attraction, if that is the right term, was born, and it was to live on in a less ghoulish manner with Madame Tussaud’s ever-popular museum of waxworks and effigies of murderers and their prey.

These were the days when convicted killers were executed in public, and there was something of a carnival atmosphere as spectators flocked to the gallows to watch until 1868, when legislation was passed which meant that the death sentence would henceforth be carried out privately within prison walls. We were becoming a much more humane society by then, and in fact had been thus since 1823, when the Judgement of Death Act reduced the number of capital crimes to those guilty of treason, murder or piracy. People could no longer be hanged for property crimes, although at least one historian has pointed out that the sole reason was because the legal system could not cope with the huge number of death sentences to be carried out.

As readers we are led by the hand (I almost said ‘by the neck’) through a selection of notorious cases. In 1828 Maria Marten was shot dead in the celebrated ‘Murder in the Red Barn’ business, another crime which captured the public imagination. So did the Frederick and Maria Manning affair of 1847, the ‘Bermondsey Horror’, a rare episode in which husband and wife were executed together, for the killing of Maria’s lover. So did the Road Hill House murder of 1860, in which little Savill Kent was butchered to death and several people came under suspicion until his adolescent stepsister solved the mystery by confessing that she was the guilty party, which attracted public interest almost at once and has never ceased to do so to this day. Yet there were soon rather more respectable ways to satiate one’s appetite for crime, loosely speaking – the ‘sensation novel’ and the melodrama. Rubber-neckers no longer had to go to crime scenes and ogle brutally-dismembered corpses (and thankfully were no longer allowed to) even if they so desired, admittedly in a more brutish age than ours, if they could read about them instead. Some of the greatest writers of the day, such as Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens, took inspiration for one or two of their books from real-life crimes.

For many years, violent death was entertainment, and in a sense it still is. The Golden Age, it might be said, began with the Sherlock Holmes stories and continued with the ever-popular novels of Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers. In retrospect these authors’ works might have been flawed in their improbability, wooden characters, and in the case of Sayers even snobbery and racism, but they flew out of the bookshops on publication, and those of Christie, the best-selling writer of her age, still do. It ended with the Second World War. One reason for this, as observed by George Orwell in his 1946 essay ‘The Decline of the English Murder’, was the appetite for more gritty, or we might say more brutish, masochistic stories featuring gangsters, rape and much more as favoured by the new wave of American crime novelists. The other was the advent of such horrors as Auschwitz and the dropping of the atom bomb, which shook the age-old belief in order and hierarchy. By the time hanging was abolished in 1964, the detective story was being replaced by the spy thriller. Yet even so, to this day it is estimated that one in every three books sold is a crime novel. To paraphrase an old saying, where there’s crime there’s brass.

At first I found the general theme of the book a little unfocussed, but as I read on I was gradually drawn in. The author has taken a very wide-ranging theme and compressed it well into an enjoyable, well-researched volume on one of our favourite guilty pleasures. She admits in the last page that, throughout writing it, she was a little worried about being too flippant about murder. None of us would dispute that we are still appalled by the horror and brutality of such cases as Brady and Hindley, Dennis Nilsen and Frederick West, to name but three. Yet that is no reason for not savouring this read on a prickly yet still engrossing subject.

Among similar titles for further reading, may we recommend Capital Crimes: Seven centuries of London life and murder by Max Decharne; or for an account of the Constance and Savill Kent case, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale.

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Buy A Very British Murder: the Story of a National Obsession by Lucy Worsley at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Very British Murder: the Story of a National Obsession by Lucy Worsley at Amazon.com.


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