Why do I find stories of murder and death so comforting? This is a question that has long puzzled me. And Lucy Worsley is here with her delicious 2013 book to try and answer it.
This is the story of how the murder mystery, both real and fictitious, became a national obsession in Britain. We begin with very much real ‘Ratcliffe Highway murders’ in 1811, a bloody attack in the East End of London that results in the deaths of seven people, and marks a watershed moment in public interest in murder. This interest develops over the decades, and gives birth to a world of entertainment, novels, plays, films, paintings and true-crime journalism. There is also plenty on the fictional detectives that play such a leading and well-loved role in British literature.
The essential theory seems to be that the safer and more sedate our lives have become, and the less actual death is happening on our doorsteps, the more we enjoy hearing about it. It is the danger at arms length provided by a good murder that is comforting. I’ll take that, as it means my love for a good whodunit qualifies me as safe and sedate, rather than morbid and weird.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this book, that accompanied Worsley’s television series of the same name, is the way that the history of murder as entertainment goes hand in hand with the history of policing and the history of journalism, all developing together in a dysfunctional but highly symbiotic relationship. Genuinely illuminating.
Worsley is a historian who has clearly carried out meticulous and thorough research for this book, which comes with all the credibility of a good academic source. But it is where she allows her personality and eccentricity to shine that this book is at its best. Her passion for Dorothy L. Sayers is infectious, and there is no attempt at objectivity where she is concerned, especially when giving short shrift to her naysayers.
If, like me, you love a good murder story, then this book will be a smorgasbord of delights, and it is certainly the perfect read for a cold winter’s night.
I’d love to know what you make of it. If you’d like to write a 250 word of A Very British Murder, or any previous read of the fortnight, send to email@example.com or contact me on twitter @AnnaCaig and you could see it published in future edition.