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A Very British Murder

A Very British Murder

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Sherlock Holmes first appeared in 1887, just months before the series of brutal slayings in Whitechapel that are chalked up to the unknown serial killer nicknamed ‘Jack the Ripper’. 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. The next chapter continues the story by looking at the puppets that were used to stage a reenactment of the murder, which launches us into the history of these shows. Hercule Poirot and the other rather sedentary sleuths of the 1920s and 30s such as Lord Peter Wimsey were created by a new generation of female crime authors.

Parts One and Two of Lucy Worsley's book ("How to Enjoy a Murder" and "Enter the Detective") cover much of the same material I do when teaching my graduate courses "The Gothic Tradition" and "Sherlock, Science, and Ratiocination.

First published in 1841, that story preceded the portrayals in Dickens' and Collins' works by over ten years, and is generally considered to be the first modern detective story. From public hangings, to wax museums, to Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, to Sherlock Holmes and forensic science, to sensation novels, to the first female detective fiction, to the Golden Age crime novelists and more, this work covers a lot of ground without ever getting bogged down. The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock by Lucy Worsley is a 2014 Pegasus Books publication. I was surprised initially by the fact that the first few chapters were about real life murders a couple of centuries ago and the reporting of such in the news sheets of the day, rather than the literary treatment of the subject.

As a look at the changing nature of the types of books the nation read as well as illustrating some of the true-life crimes of the period this is an excellent read. And it is the thriller, rather than the sedate and cerebral ‘Golden Age’ detective story, which dominates crime fiction to this day. The fact that the British enjoyed and couldn’t get enough of murder is outlined and discussed by Worsley but not meant to be an encompassing book on crime itself.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. I wasn't sure exactly where this book was going when I first started it since the way the information is presented is rather confusing. She makes the case that the fascination with murder corresponded to the increasing urbanisation of Britain during the nineteenth century which, because neighbours no longer knew each other as they had done in a more rural age, meant that murders could be much harder to detect. The founding of an organised police force is discussed, the use of detectives, notorious crimes, 'Penny Bloods' (the forerunner of crime fiction) and forensic science.

The subject matter itself is not groundbreaking or perspective-changing but interesting nevertheless if you have a fondness for detective fiction as I do.

His scalp was exhibited for money, and remains on display in a museum in Bury St Edmunds to this very day. Worsley describes the fact that hangings and murders provided entertainment to the public, even so much so that the people bought trinkets as souvenirs. Its said that about one third of all books sold are crime fiction and this book gives us a comprehensive overview of the evolution of the genre from nineteenth century broadsheets to the sensation novel and to today's detective and forensic crime fiction. I am a fan of detective stories from the Golden Age, and I was disappointed that there are several examples where Ms Worsley took quotes totally out of context. Written to accompany a BBC TV series this book is a great read for anyone like me who loves crimes, history and books as Lucy Worsley traces the history of our interest in murder over the last two hundred years.

She takes us through the major real-life cases of the Victorian age, such as the Road Hill House murder or the Maria Manning case and shows how these were reflected both in stage melodrama and in the early crime fiction of Dickens, Wilkie Collins et al. Similarly, when dealing with techonological progress in crime fighting, the development of telegraphy is not mentioned, even though it was responsible for the capture of the notorious Dr Crippen, who again is not mentioned. The Victorians believed that this new sophistication in the ‘art’ of murder was caused by the growing industry of life insurance. Combine that with the rise of affordable printed material, such as the Penny Dreadfuls that became available during the Victorian era, and suddenly the commercial potential of murder, real or fictional, was huge.The book mainly concentrates on the period from the beginning of the XIX century to the Golden age of detective fiction, not really mapping out how the detective novel has changed since then.

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