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Murder most British: Why the fascination?

Historian Lucy Worsley tracks the evolution of Britain's mystery obsession.

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About two centuries ago, Great Britain’s stiff upper lips began wagging about the deadliest crime of all. They haven’t stopped since.

Throughout the 19th century, a series of real-life killers captivated the British population. At one point, a magazine cartoon mocked the lascivious fascination by depicting men, women, and children milling around a ghastly Madame Tussaud’s waxworks display of “Ye Celebrated Murderers.” The cartoon, in fact, wasn’t far from the truth: Killers were memorialized in print, in wax and even in figurines and puppetry.

Meanwhile, Sherlock Holmes had plenty of company as he set the standard for fictional detectives.

How did the British population become so fascinated by untimely deaths? Lucy Worsley, chief curator for several of the Britain’s top attractions, including the Tower of London, has some answers. She explores the question in her new fascinating, morbid, and eerily enjoyable book The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock.

“This pleasure taken in violence is timeless; it just takes different forms and emphases depending on the technologies and economy of an age,” she writes. “In the nineteen century, the rise of literacy and the fall of the price of print allowed a love of blood to flourish in new ways. But it was always there – and still is today.”

In an interview, Worsley explains about how the Industrial Revolution paved the road for an entire country’s trip down murder lane. She also describes the gruesome nature of 19th-century murder memorabilia and confesses an inappropriately gleeful moment of her own.
 
 Q: What made you want to understand the history of fascination with English murder, both fictional and real?
 
 When I was little, all I really wanted out of my life was to become Nancy Drew. I've always enjoyed fictional sleuths, especially Nancy. Part of the reason I like reading about detectives is the way that they, like historians – like me, even! – have to piece together what happened from small pieces and fragments of evidence.

And as a museum curator, I'm always looking for interesting, accessible ways into history. The history of murder grabs people, but it's also a way into the history of justice, gender, society, literature, literacy itself.
 
 Q: As you write, the news media evolved in the 19th century while more people became literate. At the same time, there seemed to be a lot of interesting people out there snuffing other people. How do all these things tie together?
 
 It all boils down to the Industrial Revolution. That was the impetus behind this new, 19th-century desire to read about murder in journalism or in fiction. It came about because people, in Britain at least, were moving from the country to the cities.

If you lived in 18th-century England, you probably lived in a village, worked on the land, and your greatest fears were probably dying in a famine or of disease or in a war.

In the 19th century, more like than not you had moved to a town. Life was cleaner and safer there, and violent death less likely. But you probably didn't know your neighbors in the same way that you'd have done in the close-knit community of the village, and perhaps your neighbor he looked a bit odd ... perhaps even like a murderer....

So, people began to have the luxury, and it is a luxury, of worrying about things as inherently unlikely as getting murdered. An obsession with murder goes along with paranoia, neurosis and anxiety – all the other things we “enjoy” about modern life in the city!
 
 Q: Why do you think Britain in particular was such fertile soil for interest in murder?
 
 Britain can claim to lead the world in murder because it was a country that industrialized early. Other countries, going through the same process later, caught up and produced their own genres of detective fiction. I imagine that detective fiction doesn't have the same appeal in the developing world: If there's a genuinely high chance that you might die violently yourself, I'm positive that reading about it would hold less appeal.
 
 Q: Murderers were celebrated not only thought the press but also via figurines, puppets, and wax figures. Which of these did you find most fascinating?
 
 The Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s was like a “Who's Who” of all the greatest murderers of the 19th century.

Alongside the wax figures, the management would also try to acquire items associated with particular crimes. So murderess Maria Manning, who buried her dead lover underneath her Bermondsey floor, was accompanied by a little model showing the layout of the kitchen itself. And murderess Mary Pearcey, whose victims included a baby, was accompanied by the very same boiled sweet the baby had been sucking at the time of death. Unbelievably gruesome.
 
 Q: You also write about the rise of fictional murder. Who’s your favorite of the British mystery authors who became popular between the world wars of the 20th century?
 
 Dorothy L. Sayers is absolutely my favorite The reason she stands above Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham is because she was so subtly aware of the lot and trials of women of her decade. Her detective Harriet Vane is, like Sayers herself, a mystery story writer, and has to not only solve crime but also deal with the problem of earning a living in the 1930s.

These stories hint at the continuing trauma of the Great War, the problems women have getting taken seriously, and the nature and purpose of a writer. You don't find all this – despite its wonderfully glossy surface – in the work of Agatha Christie.
 
 Q. What do you think of society’s continued fascination with true and fictional crime? It’s not new, of course. But is there a point where we should worry that we’re nastily bloodthirsty instead of just being drawn to compelling stories?
 
I’m afraid I have rather a gloomy view on this. If you look at our violent computer games and horror films, they're even worse than the most horrid entertainments of the Victorians, horrid though those seem at first glance. The further we move away from nature and its dangers, the more compelled humans are to seek blood and violence vicariously.
 
 Q: How about you personally? On the job and when you’re writing, what draws you to the darker side of life, to handling a scalp and examining 19th-century puppets of murderers and victims?
 
 Well, when I was handling the scalp of the dead late-Georgian murderer William Corder, I felt three conflicting emotions that I think are central to readers' enjoyment of crime fiction.

Firstly, I felt horror. It was disgusting! I could see his little shriveled ear! Secondly, I felt a real chill. I felt slightly guilty, almost, that I was handling the remains of a real human being, even if he had been a murderer. And thirdly – and I'm not proud of this – I experienced a moment of glee. I was alive, and he was dead, and I was glad that it was that way round.

I say I'm not proud of it, and many people would condemn me for it. But let me ask you this: Have you ever been inside a warm house, looking out of the window at the people getting soaked in the rain outside, and felt a little bit smug? I'm afraid that the thought of bad things happening to other people does present human beings with a certain amount of pleasure.
 
 Q: Should I be worried if I see you lurking in a dark alley around the Tower of London? I’d hate to end up as a figurine. OK, I’d actually love to end up as a figurine, but would prefer a scenario other than the ones in your book!
 
 If you should approach me in a dark alley near the Tower of London, I promise that I'd run away screaming before you could say “Boo!” I'm the biggest scaredy-cat in the world.

Like many a Victorian murderess, I don't have the guts for guns or blunt instruments. But poison, though, that's another matter....
 
 Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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