🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
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.
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.