A Very British Murder by Lucy Worsley

a very british murderFrom melodrama to noir…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Lucy Worsley has set out to trace the roots of the British obsession with murder – as consumers, rather than participants. 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. And what could be more thrilling than knowing that a murderer might be on the loose? 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 is light in tone and an easy, enjoyable read. Worsley also presented a companion TV series (which I didn’t watch) and the book is written in an episodic format, presumably to tie in with that. Much of the material will be familiar to anyone with an interest in crime fiction or true crime, but the format draws interesting parallels between the society of a given time and how that influenced the type of crime fiction that was being written. 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. We see how the rise of the police detective in real-life began to be mirrored in some fiction, while the early failures of the police to solve crimes left the door open for the rise of the fictional amateur sleuth. Of course, Worsley talks about Holmes and Watson in this context, but she also casts her net more widely to discuss sensation writers such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and early fictional female sleuths and how they reflected and to some degree challenged the Victorian view of women in general.

(Excerpt from the historical puppet show of the real-life Red Barn murder starring Bill Nighy and Diana Quick courtesy of the V&A)

As she moves into the twentieth century, Worsley largely pulls away from true crime to concentrate on the fictional. She discusses the Golden Age authors in some depth, giving almost mini-biographies of some of them, particularly Dorothy L Sayers. She argues (as others have done) that the Golden Age puzzle with its fairly defined rules developed as a response to the horrors of WW1 and fed into a society that wanted something a bit cosier than the blood-curdling melodramas of the past. She discusses how class and gender were represented in these novels, but keeps the tone light – though it’s clearly well-researched, this book never reads like an academic study.

Lucy Worsley
Lucy Worsley

After the Golden Age, Worsley rushes through hard-boiled fiction and today’s appetite for the noir and the serial-killer, but this last chapter is really just a post-script. Her position seems to be that the mystery novel declined as a form after the Second World War, to be replaced by the more violent thriller genre – true to an extent, but the huge market for cosies suggests to me that there’s a bigger appetite for ‘traditional’ murder mysteries still than I felt Worsley acknowledged. And there are still plenty of police procedurals that at heart are the descendants of the Golden Age, where clues and character are still more important than blood-soaked scenes of violence and torture. Thank goodness!

An interesting and enjoyable read, which I would suggest would be an ideal entry-level book for anyone looking to find out more about the history of crime fiction and its links with society.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Ebury.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

51 thoughts on “A Very British Murder by Lucy Worsley

  1. FictionFan – Oh, what an interesting book. Her main thesis reminds of an important point that Michael Crichton made in his The Great Train Robbery, which I recommend. It’s his non-fiction book about the famous 1855 robbery of the London and Southeastern Railroad. Later it was made into a film with Sean Connery, but I really do think the book’s lots better. Anyway…Crichton argues that the British fascination with crime, especially crime with some ‘derring-do’ rose to a very high level during the Victorian Era; he has an interesting discussion of the effect of city life and the newspaper industry on this.


    • Thanks, Margot – that does sound interesting! The Victorian fascination with bloodcurdling melodrama is such a contrast to the way we think of them as very repressed – and the enthusiasm for crime seems to have transcended class. But I suppose it really predates even the Victorians – Austen was mocking ‘sensation’ novels way back at the beginning of the nineteenth century.


  2. The author seems like a detective by the look of things. That face isn’t innocent. I liked the movie too. (He should have killed her faster, though. All those shrieks would have driven anyone to it.)

    Great review, too.


    • Haha! It’s great isn’t it? The link to it was actually in the book. I was hoping the full-length show might be there, but just the bloody climax, I’m afraid. But long enough to be terrifying…(and just a wee bit funny too!)


      • I think my and Anna’s puppet operating is very good in the clip above (haha) ….. I do have the video of the whole play so might put it on Youtube. It’s very nice to have a tenuous link to nice Lucy Worsley ……. (Puppeteers never get any credit ….. boo! Joanna Lumley was also in it and she was ultra-lovely.)


        • Oh, I hope you do put the whole thing on youtube – I’d love to watch it. If you do, please will you pop back and give me a link that I can put on the blog? I promise to give the puppeteer credit… 😉


  3. No Jack the Ripper? *sigh* That is an interesting review. I think that Americans, too, have a fixation on crime and murder. It’s not quite a subtle as the British crime and murder. Thank you for the review.


  4. I have just downloaded this book on to Kindle, on the basis of your recommendation, FF. It’s cost me £8 but we can’t expect all our books to be cheap, can we?


  5. I saw this dealt with in the programme you show with Lucy Worsley and I thought what a fantastic story this was, even in Victorian times. Thanks so much for reminding me and sharing her book with us. I love her programmes on TV – she has dealt with so many topics and delivers each with such authority but lots of fun too.


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