As the long, dark nights of fall draw nigh, Lucy Worsley’s The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock will have readers steeping an Earl Grey, slathering a scone with strawberry jam and savoring tales of slit throats, stabbed hearts and a killer’s preserved hide. This book, as the title of an opening section says, tells readers “How to Enjoy a Murder.”
The book’s theme is that while grisly murders blot the country’s history, renditions of these crimes in the arts—penny dreadfuls, puppet shows, Hitchcock thrillers and, especially, mystery novels—have also chilled audiences in Britain and around the world for hundreds of years.
Worsley’s history of this phenomenon came about when the BBC asked her to produce a TV series about Britain’s fascination with murder. Worsley was well qualified for the assignment. She’s the chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces (the charity that manages the Tower of London, Hampton Court and Kensington Palaces), she’s a prolific author (If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home) and she’s followed mysteries for many reasons.
“I wanted to be Nancy Drew, or Harriet Vane,” she confessed recently during a phone interview from her home in London.
For her new book, Worsley stalked murder cases that had resonated strongly with the public, ones that inspired many different forms of art.
Exemplary is a case known as “the murder in the red barn,” Worsely says. In this case, which occurred in 1828, the body of 25-year-old Maria Marten, who lived in a peaceful Suffolk village, was found beneath the floors of a barn that turned blood red at sunset. “The case crops up in melodrama and ceramics,” Worsley says. “There are references to it all through Victorian culture. It just rippled out.”
Three time periods stand out in Worsley’s history. The seminal era, she says, was the Industrial Revolution, which gave the Brits a leg up with murder stories.
“The British can say we have historically led in mystery stories,” Worsley says, “because we industrialized early.”
“From the 19th century on,” Worsley says, “you likely moved from a village to a town. Here you have wonderful things like gas lighting in the streets, you have drains, you have a policeman who looks after you. [So] you have the luxury of worrying about murder. It goes along with neuroses and paranoia and all the wonderful things of modern life.”
The tale of Sweeney Todd, Worsley says, is a classic representation of the fears people experienced in cities at that time. With mass production of food, people worried about what was in the meat pies they bought on the way to the barber’s shop, where they were likely looking for missing friends. “You could disappear in a town,” Worsley says, “in a way you couldn’t in a village, and so you could commit crimes in a town that you couldn’t in a village.”
Tales of murder were also abundant during the Victorian Era.
“If you picked up all the pieces of a wonderful, attractive murder,” Worsley says, “you could solve it from your armchair. This is our ideal of the Victorian era: people happy on the surface and boiling underneath reading about murder.”
By far the richest period for murder in the arts—its golden age—occurred, Worsley says, between the two world wars.
“[After World War I], I see weariness with bloodshed, a wish to retreat and go to a safer world populated by little spinster old ladies, who turn out to be detectives,” Worsley says. “There’s an upper-class setting, a beautiful country house in a beautiful village, a wonderful hotel and a plot in which someone not very nice gets killed and no one is particularly upset about it. There’s a little violence, but very quickly it becomes about clues and suspects. That was a way of making violence acceptable.”
The detectives in these stories, like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, thrived until the realities of the world caught up with them.
“A lot of these cozy stories don’t mention the Great Depression, don’t deal with the rise of Fascism,” Worsley says. “As we move into the 1930s and the world is heading toward war, we need the hard-boiled Americans— Raymond Chandler, the black mask writers—to describe things.”
World War II, with the horrors of the Holocaust and of nuclear warfare, Worsley says, challenged the certainties about good and evil that golden age detective tales maintained.
“It’s much harder to find the answer to things [now],” Worsley says. “It’s harder to determine what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Even so, Worsley is certain murder will continue to turn up in art and entertainment.
“Even in a beautifully neat suburban estate with perfect hedges where people go to work at nine, come home at five and cook their dinners, they’re going to be reading about murder,” she says. “The more civilized we get, the more we feel an urge to read about crime and violence. As our lives get cleaner and safer, the more we are going to seek the thrill of death.”Gerald Bartell’s book coverage also appears in the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle.