The Art of the English Murder is an interesting journey through one of our more macabre pastimes.
Picking up in the early 19th century, The Art of the English Murder traces the evolution of public interest in shocking crimes of violence. Starting with famous true crime murders that inspired widespread coverage in newspapers and broadsides, as well as books, plays, essays and songs, the timeline shifts forward, tracing the development of the public’s fascination with grisly murders in tandem with the urbanization of society and the development of London’s professional police force. The lineage includes mid-19th century “sensation novels,” penny dreadfuls and gothic stage dramas of the Victorian era and the emergence of classic British detective fiction, including Sherlock Holmes and the influence of Jack the Ripper, as the century ended. The book spends a lot of time in the period between the 20th century’s two World Wars, the era of Agatha Christie and her peers. The journey wraps in the late ’40s, as American-style hardboiled crime tales, espionage stories and the atmospheric films of Alfred Hitchcock dominated public fascination.
Historian Lucy Worsley constructs a brisk, efficient timeline of the British audience’s fascination with sensational murder stories, both true crime and fictional. She spotlights some of the most famous examples of each and provides some interesting cultural context that digs into why these tales were so compelling to so many people. Worsley has a crisp, breezy style that reads rather smoothly. She explores the sociological and psychological implications of the topic without getting too bogged down in them.
The Art of the English Murder is a great exploration of some of the classic authors of British mystery and crime fiction. Worsley describes how the genre pulled in luminaries like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen early on before developing into its own distinct beast, with early practitioners such as Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Later 19th century notables like Robert Louis Stevenson and Oscar Wilde flirted with the milieu, before Arthur Conan Doyle perfected the short mystery with his Sherlock Holmes tales. Worsley spends a good deal of time on the “four Queens of Crime” from the inter-War “Golden Age” period: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. These writers were almost as colorful as their famous novels and Worsley makes a good case for their continuing vitality to modern readers.
Worsley includes all kinds of other interesting details in The Art of the English Murder. She devotes a chapter to the famous wax museum of Madame Tussaud and its embrace of notorious murderers. She examines how patriarchal attitudes in the Victorian era helped more than one woman suspected of murder go free. And she uses the public’s growing fascination with high profile crimes to explore the development of Scotland Yard and London’s Metropolitan Police. There’s a lot of info packed into these pages, but Worsley never lets it overwhelm readers. The tone is almost conversational, like chatting with a smart friend on a fascinating topic.
For fans of true crime and mystery fiction, The Art of the English Murder is a detour worth taking.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on March 2, 2016.