Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Art of English Murder

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a post, but I’ve been inspired by the most exciting book I’ve read in a long time, Lucy Worsley’s The Art of English Murder. It’s a very broad introduction to the British national obsession with murder, both factual and fictional. She gives overviews of many famous 19th century murder cases and also documents the history of detective fiction. As a huge fan of British murder mysteries, especially Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, I was naturally drawn to this book. For a long time, I’ve been trying to find a guide to the real life cases Sayers often refers to, and this is it! Now I know all about serial poisoner William Palmer, the elusive Madeline Smith and many more. I particularly enjoyed Worsley’s discussion of Charles Dickens, and his interest in crime, criminals, and London’s first detective squad! I’ve seen other reviewers complain that Worsley “spoils” the solution of the mysteries of some novels, so I won’t go into as much detail as she does, but I’ll just say that the detective, Inspector Bucket, and the murderer of Bleak House (my favorite Dickens novel), as well as Nancy in Oliver Twist, were based on real people. I was also fascinated to read about Dickens’ reaction to being one of the spectators gathered to see the public hanging of Maria and Frederick Manning. He and his friends rented a room across from the jail where the execution took place, but he was so disturbed by the hanging and the crowd’s response to it that he became a strong opponent of the practice of public executions. I was much less interested in the chapter on Wilkie Collins, since I’m not a fan of his work, but I’m sure that those who are will enjoy that. I was a little sad that Worley ignored the mystery elements in the works of Anthony Trollope, my favorite Victorian author. The Eustace Diamonds centers around a jewel robbery and shows a fair amount of the methods used by the police to solve the crime; and Phineas Redux starts out as a political and personal novel and about halfway through turns into a full-on murder mystery!) In general, I found Worsley’s appraisal of literature less interesting than the earlier chapters on real murders. I’m already an expert on Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, so I didn’t need that part of the book, though I did enjoy reading about the Detection Club, a society of which those authors were members, along with other prominent mystery writers. Some reviewers of this book criticize it for its inaccuracies, but I think if you view it as an introduction to other, perhaps better researched works, I don’t think that has to diminish this book’s value. (I don’t know enough about the topic to know if the book contains inaccuracies myself.) In fact, The Art of English Murder has already spurred me on to two great books that are in-depth histories of crimes Worsley describes. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale documents the famous Rode Hill House murder, the real life country house murder in a middle class family that launched the whole literary genre. Death at the Priory, by James Ruddick, tells the story of the infamous poisoning of Charles Bravo. This crime, the murder of a tyrannical husband, in which his wife was a suspect, throws a spotlight on the cracks in the surface of the traditional Victorian gender roles. I also read the very interesting bestseller, an example of the sensation fiction genre, Lady Audley's Secret. Next on my to read shelf are a few more in the same vein: Poisoned Lives: Victorian Poisoners and Their Victims; The Poisoner: The Life and Crimes of Victorian England's Most Notorious Doctor; and Did She Kill Him?: A Victorian Tale of Deception, Adultery, and Arsenic.

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