Book Review: The Art of the English Murder

What is it that makes a murder mystery so satisfying to read about? In her book The Art of the English Murder, Lucy Worsley tracks the history of English literature devoted to murder, mayhem and true crime.

I’ve already commented on the book, but now I want to do a complete review (And, since W.S. Gilbert often finds his way into my thoughts, there is a reference to one of his works below).

Beginning with Thomas de Quincey’s “Confessions of an Opium Eater” and “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” this entertaining book traces the development of popular taste in sensational murders from the 18th-century broadsheets printed with murderer’s confessions which were sold at public hangings, to the bloodless, upper-class “puzzle mysteries” of the Golden Age in the 1920s and 1930s.

Here are a few of the questions that are answered in the pages of this book:

  1. When did England gain its first paid professional police force? (In 1749, magistrate Henry Fielding created the Bow Street Runners, which began as six trained parish constables; in 1829, the patchwork of local constables in London was replaced by the Metropolitan Police Force, and in 1842 the Detective Branch was established to actually solve crimes, not just apprehend criminals.)
  2. Before then, who was responsible for tracking down the guilty and seeing justice done? (Before the advent of a professional paid police force, people of means had to hire a “thief-taker” to find stolen goods or finger a criminal.)
  3. What was the official name of Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors? (The “Other Chamber” – although in 1860 it was renamed the “Chamber of Comparative Physiognomy,” in deference to the then-popular pseudo-science of phrenology)
  4. Before reading became a widespread pastime, how did people learn about celebrated crimes and criminals? (Through “street patterers,” plays and puppet shows. Street patterers were sellers of newspapers, confessional broadsheets and booklets describing a sensational crime. Some of them would team up with a second patterer and act out the most sensational moments of a crime to attract the attention of the crowds. Melodramatic plays also re-enacted well-known murders. The Victoria and Albert Museum has marionettes of murder victim Maria Marten and her killer, William Corder, which were used in a travelling puppet show.)
  5. Who created the first fictional detectives? (Charles Dickens is credited with the first detective, Inspector Bucket, who is a character in Bleak House (1852). Willkie Collins added a police detective, Sergeant Cuff, to The Moonstone (1868).
  6. Who created the first female detective? (One of the first amateur female sleuths is maidservant Susan Hopley, who appears in The Adventures of Susan Hopley, or Circumstantial Evidence, by Catherine Crowe, in 1841. Andrew Forrester wrote The Female Detective around 1864, featuring his character Mrs Gladden, a paid private investigator who sometimes goes undercover in disguise to gather her clues. Like W.S. Hayward’s female detective Mrs. Paschal, introduced in The Mysterious Countess at about the same time, she was a strong-willed woman dedicated to crime-solving, with a brain both “vigorous and subtle.”)

Nowadays it seems that the cozy mystery is less popular than the thriller. Like its predecessor the “sensation novel,” the thriller aims to arouse strong emotion in the reader—quicken the heartbeat, bate the breath, and make the reader turn the pages.

The sensation novel was so popular that W.S. Gilbert even wrote a play parodying the style, in which the novel’s characters come to life and criticize the beleaguered playwright’s plot. You can learn more about this little gem here at the Gilbert and Sullivan archive

For those of us devoted to mysteries and to history, Worsley’s book is a fun exploration of changing attitudes and trends in mystery literature. It’s definitely worth a read.


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