Library Director’s Notebook
There are many theories about why people love to read mysteries. Is it because mysteries, particularly traditional mystery novels, offer the reader a challenging puzzle , with a final resolution that usually ends with a sense of justice served? Or is it because our curiosity cannot help but be aroused at the very thought of that most serious and timeless of crimes, a cold-blooded murder?
The Art of the English Murder by Lucy Worsley covers quite a bit of blood-stained ground as it traces the history of real-life murderers in Britain over several centuries. Long before the days of the Internet, texting and tweeting, and even before the prevalence of radio, television, and movies, the vox populi was very busy spreading the word about the latest sensational crime. Whether passed along by word of mouth among local villagers or spread from town to town on the lips of balladeers, or the gaudy print of broadsides , murder and mayhem proved to be irresistible to the public, at every level of society.
Some crimes committed long ago became not just overnight sensations but enduring icons of villainy that survive in the popular imagination to this day: think Jack the Ripper or Dr. Crippen. Other crimes not so well-remembered, yet equally disturbing have been well-researched and set forth in The Art of the English Murder to show how the roots of the popular fascination with murder run deep.
For example, the Radcliff Highway Murders committed in the early nineteenth century caused a major panic among householders in the area of East London, until they were “solved” with the very dubious conviction of a local man unfortunate enough not to have an alibi. The all too common motive of wanting be rid of a superfluous lover seems to have been the driving force behind the actions of Frederick and Maria Manning who buried the “encumbrance” under some floor boards; while another Maria, the unfortunate Maria Marten, met her death at the hands of a recalcitrant lover at a rendezvous in a red barn.
It is comforting to believe that “murder will out”, yet without a professional detective force, it is not likely that many crimes will be solved or criminals brought to trial. Some of the most interesting research in The Art of the English Murder recounts the rise of the professional detective and the mystique and perhaps unrealistic expectations that arose around them. Charles Dickens, himself quite fascinated with murder and other violent crimes which feature prominently in many of his novels, was a strong proponent of the rise of professional detectives. After taking a long, late evening walk with one of them through some dreary and dangerous parts of London, Dickens found his admiration greatly increased. It is believed that he modeled the doggedly-determined Detective Bucket in Bleak House after the real life Inspector Charles Field.
Those who love to read murder mysteries may well be content to enjoy the story and put it aside; but others, like myself, cannot help but be fascinated by the long and elaborate history of the real crimes that have morphed into the complex and enduring world of murder mysteries.