THE IRRESISTIBLE LURE OF MURDER
AN EARLY HISTORY
"I cannot say that I shall be able to tranquillize my mind, since it is impressed with the awful recollection that my name hereafter will bear the odious notoriety of a wilful murderer."
James Greenacre, murderer
(From the condemned cells at Newgate Gaol, 1837
What is it about the crime genre that has so repulsed and captivated audiences for almost two hundred years? Perhaps the vicarious thrill, the taboo of criminal empathy, the car-crash urge to look upon what is certain to shock and sicken. Whatever it is, this too-human fascination with murder is one of the central preoccupations of my own books set in Victorian London.
Why London, and why then? Because that time and place, I believe, is the womb of what today we call crime fiction. Even before the genre had been ‘officially’ born with Eugene Vidocq or Edgar Allan Poe, the great metropolis was ripe for the murder narrative. It turned crime into stories, stories into sensations, sensations into myths and myths into templates for the great writing that would define what we know today.
The clamouring crowds
The city was inhuman. Over-population, the faceless masonry and the cacophonous bustle reduced individuals to anonymous members of the crowd. Among millions, one was more alone than ever. At the same time, pockets of London – St Giles’, Westminster, Whitechapel – were terrae incognitae of unimaginable poverty and crime where even the police feared to walk after dark. Danger stalked every alley.
The result was a climate of perpetual and barely suppressed fear born of ignorance. When one knew nothing of one’s neighbour or workmate, when one daily encountered street conmen and false beggars, and when nervous rumour was the internet of the day, there was an urgent thirst to know. Knowledge was not so much power as reassurance. By knowing, one could cling on to the flotsam of truth among the raging metropolitan sea.
Accordingly, illustrious murders during the early decades of Victoria’s reign were sensations that would set London alight with horrified excitement. Every detail of the investigation and the trial would be reported in the major newspapers and followed up by enterprising street printers who would produce ‘genuine’ confessions and poems to stoke the conflagration. By the time the criminal came to trial, hundreds would crowd around the magistrates’ court or police station for a glimpse of the killer they had read so much about. He was, after all, by this time a star. If hanged, his execution would draw upwards of 30,000 spectators.
This, then, was the ‘crime writing’ of the day. It may not have been published as a single volume with a plotted narrative, but the accumulated articles, leaflets, rumours and revelations formed a true narrative that pushed all the buttons later to be exploited in fiction. Here was a formula for massive commercial success, if only it could be harnessed in a single fictional work that would capture the raging public thirst.
The foundations of the genre
Before such a work could be written, the phenomenon had to be codified. The Newgate Calendar, with its sensational portrayal of true murder cases, had already been successful in meeting a demand, but it did not harness the visceral fascination evoked by contemporaneous press coverage. What was it about those reports that provided added dimension and raised the facts into something still more exciting?
Thomas de Quincey had the answer. As early as 1823, his famous essay "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth" had attempted to define precisely what shivered the spine in that play while drawing a subtle parallel with the 1812 Ratcliff Highway murders in London. In essence, his suggestion was that the writer must "throw the interest on the murderer" – must ask the reader to empathise with the killer against all moral imperatives.
It was a radical observation, and it laid the foundations for the fiction to follow by providing an alternative perspective – perspective in this case being synonymous with narrative viewpoint and the manipulations of fiction. For while press reports of the time took the single objective view of the reporter, fiction was required to provide multiple facets of the crime: not only the fly-on-the-wall, but also the red-handed killer – not just the bald facts, but also the imagination to give them life. Only by experiencing the story from the ‘inside’ could one experience the true horror and know the killer through the safe medium of narrative.
At the time, de Quincey’s essay was taken to say more about the art of Shakespeare than crime, but his successive series of articles on murder expanded his theme, culminating in the astounding "Postscript to Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts" (1854). In this, he retells the story of the Ratcliff Highways murders from the point of view of an author rather than as a reporter, employing a range of literary techniques to position the narrative in such a way that all the original horror of the original is brought to life.
These techniques are so many and varied that the original essay must be read by any lover of crime fiction. Even today, almost 190 years after the crime, de Quincey’s account makes the hairs stand on end. He describes the sound of the killers footsteps; he plays upon the irony of the maid who went to the shops and avoided death; he sets up the outrageous tableau of killer and victim pressing ear to ear through the thin wooden board of a door. Perhaps most modern of all, he pulls off a giddying narrative coup de theatre by planting the killer in a room with his victim and then removing the reader to another scene with a knowing aside: "Meanwhile, at this point, let us leave the murderer alone with his victims. For fifty minutes, let him work his pleasure." Thus is the ‘car-crash’ urge knowingly employed and heightened.
De Quincey was formalising the thrill of the press coverage and providing a rulebook for how it might be turned into fiction. Meanwhile, Poe had joined the debate in 1842 with his "Murders in the Rue Morgue, in which he introduced another key element of narrative perspective: the ‘Watson function’, whereby the narrator follows the detective but does not know all they know. The denouement then becomes the revelation of the full story: the solution. In his lesser-known "The Mystery of Marie Roget" (1842), Poe further added to the fictionalising impulse by having his detective Dupin solve a disguised true murder merely by reading newspaper accounts of it. Here, the objective facts of the media truly come full circle through the manipulation of narrative perspective to suggest a possible genre.
It is interesting to note that when the Metropolitan Police’s Detective Force was set up in 1842, the word "detective" was known only as an adjective: to seek out and find. For a long time, contemporary newspapers such as The Times debated gravely whether such practices constituted espionage as practiced by police agents on the continent. It would take the fascination of the press (and of Charles Dickens’ journalism the subject) to create the figure of ‘the detective’ and the skill of ‘detection’ (previously termed ‘ratiocination’ by Poe).
By the 1850s, detectives were appearing in texts that did not yet constitute a full-blooded crime genre. Dickens’ Inspector Bucket (Bleak House) and Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff (The Moonstone) made the detective a lightning rod for the deductive urge: a figure who might one day deserve an entire novel for himself. In the meantime, there was another giant leap to be made.
The early pioneers had developed mechanisms by which the fascination with true murder could be turned into the enjoyment of the crime story. Fortunately, the urge to know continued to be a driving principle in the London of Sherlock Holmes (some forty years after Poe’s stories). Now well into the modern industrial age, Holmes’ city is almost as dark and unknowable but he casts a rational light upon the darkness of poverty and crime with his remarkable deductions and scientific solutions. His disguises and theatricals benignly address fears of identity and imposture in the faceless multitudes.
Essentially, Conan Doyle’s major contribution in numerous stories is to show how the detective urge as not only a way of seeing and knowing, but also of reading. It might be argued that the spine-tingling element of seeming veracity gives way to the comforts of fictional narrative in his work, but a template had been established by the end of the century that would inform all successive crime writing.
Today, in my novels, I look back to the origins of the genre. I spend many hours reading the breathless accounts of murder in The Times and I feel the vicarious thrill of readers who cowered in gas-lit rooms as murderers stalked the midnight streets with hot and bloody hands. It was a period and a place when fear and fascination coalesced, and where the detective was the one who walked alone, lamp in hand, into the shadows towards the truth.
The Vice Society is published by Macmillan