Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Lucy Worsley's A Very British Murder: The Story of a National Obsession

Worsley, Lucy. A Very British Murder
Reviewed by Jane Mattisson Ekstam

A Very British Murder: The Story of a National Obsession (BBC Books, 2013) explores two important issues relating to Britain’s obsession with murder: When did the British start taking a ghoulish pleasure in violent death? And what does this tell us about British people? Touching on real-life murders and the history of crime, it demonstrates how the British have enjoyed and consumed the idea of murder since the beginning of the nineteenth century. It also explains why writing about murder has proved so profitable. 

Published by the BBC, A Very British Murder is a complement to Lucy Worsley’s BBC Four television series ( of the same name. While crime novels have generally been regarded as trash, they are, as Worsley argues, the genre which taught working-class people how to enjoy reading. It was what they wanted to read and is the very essence of guilty pleasure. Nothing has changed, claims Worsley: for the last 200 years, murder has been the topic to which readers from all backgrounds turn both for comfort and pleasure. 

One of the most intriguing chapters is ‘The Bermondsey Horror’, a true story which ended in 1849 with an old-fashioned hanging in public. The murder, occurring at the same time as a cholera epidemic that claimed the lives of 10,000 Londoners, is the story of a sordid death involving a love triangle in Bermondsey in south London. Frederick and Maria Manning were a husband and wife team. Frederick had a rival in the form of Maria’s ex-lover, Joseph O’Connor. O’Connor was a frequent visitor at the Mannings’ home. Passions ran high on occasions and on the fateful evening of 9 August, the Mannings shot O’Connor and bashed him 17 times on the head with a crowbar. The couple buried his body in quicklime in the hope that it would decompose quickly and then buried it near beneath the slabs near their kitchen fireplace. The body was later identified by means of O’Connor’s false teeth. It seems that the Mannings were, as Worsely points out, rather inept criminals. 

Immediately after the murder, the couple split up. The story of their capture and trial was covered by the press, The Times alone running no fewer than 72 stories on the murder and trial. Maria was cold throughout the trial, her lack of emotion causing scorn among the general public. She was regarded as the more shocking of the two accused due to her lack of morals. Her husband’s barrister summarised Maria’s behaviour as follows: ‘History teaches us that the female is capable of reaching higher in point of virtue than the male, but that when once she gives way to vice, she sinks far lower than our sex’ (117-8). A crowd of 30,000, including Charles Dickens, attended the joint execution. As Worsley explains, ‘Going to a public hanging had many of the same qualities as a trip to a tragedy at the theatre. There were the crowds, the food- and drink-sellers, and better seats for those rich enough to afford them’ (118). Dickens, for example, hired a room especially for the occasions, invited friends and organised refreshments. 

As Worsley reminds us, the last public hanging in Britain took place in 1868; capital punishment, however, continued, taking on new forms – behind the walls of prisons. This was, as Worsley underlines, a vital precondition for the classic detective story to emerge: ‘Detective fiction, unlike melodrama, or “Penny Blood” fiction, didn’t care about retribution. Its concern was more the solution of crime’ (124), argues Worsley. 

A Very British Murder demonstrates that the story of crime in Britain is associated primarily with city living despite its earlier occupation with small country villages. Crime fiction tells us most about our age, and this is why as early as 1939, novelists understood that ‘If he wishes to study the manner of our age . . . a historian of the future will probably turn, not to blue books and statistics, but to detective stories’ C.H.B. Kitchin, in Worsley, 294). Worsley’s study is highly readable, written with empathy, and also scholarly. The annotated bibliography and numerous illustrations enable the reader to understand how crime was turned into art. At the same time, A Very British Crime is a riveting investigation into the British soul by an historian, who is equally at home with television and books. A captivating history of one of Britain’s most enduring and enjoyable pastimes, A Very British Crime is an invaluable aid to anyone wishing to understand why crime fiction continues to fascinate British people and what this tells us about their psyche.

Jane Mattisson Ekstam is an Associate Professor of English at Kristianstad University, Sweden. She specialises in nineteenth-century British literature, American and Canadian fiction and detective fiction. She is currently writing about detective fiction set in the 1920s and 1930s.

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