Books Magazine

A Very British Murder

By Mmeguillotine @MmeGuillotine


I love a good crime drama – don’t you? My husband did Psychology at university and often likes to pretend to analyze my love of crime drama – in fact he often says that I ‘need to watch a good murder in order to keep sane’. Don’t worry, I reminded him that HE was the one who wanted to marry a Ripperologist and one descended from an 1888 H Division copper at that. Clearly, investigating gruesome crime is IN MY BLOOD. Or something.

As it often does, it started with Agatha Christie for me as my grandmother had a huge collection while I was growing up and I eventually moved on to Conan-Doyle, Dorothy L Sayers, PD James, Ruth Rendell and a whole host of others. I think Christie remains my first love though – she really was the Queen of Crime.


It’s odd though how soporific a really good murder can be. I don’t, to be honest, watch much television but the little that I do catch tends to mostly be crime drama. Whitechapel is my absolute favorite but I also love the ITV Marple, Poirot, Midsomer Murders, Endeavour, Lewis and even, oh woe, Rosemary and Thyme – a particularly uninspiring and ‘cosy’ series of mysteries starring Pam Ayres and Felicity Kendal as a pair of sleuthing gardeners. I have no shame. I love them all and find nothing more calming, more restful, more cheering even than a nice lazy hour half dozing in front of an old episode of Midsomer Murders or the pleasantly retro kitsch of Marple, especially if it’s one of the episodes with Joanna Lumley as Dolly Bantry.

This fascination with crime and murder is, I think, something of a national obsession here in Britain – one that we have had for several centuries according to A Very British Murder, the latest book by Dr Lucy Worsley, which charts the British fascination with violent crime and murder, both fictional and otherwise from the early nineteenth century onwards when the Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811 caused a sensation of both panic and morbid fascination that swept across the nation.


The women of Whitechapel arming themselves against the Ripper. Nice work ladies. Photo: The Museum of London.

The subject of murder and the British is, I think, an endlessly engrossing one and I think that Dr Worsley has done a wonderful job shedding a fresh light on the topic with both this book and its accompanying BBC series, during which she explores such notorious murderers as Maria Manning, William Corder and Constance Kent as well as their fictional counterparts as created by Christie, Sayers and Conan Doyle, placing each within the proper contemporary frame work in order to explain both their conception and appeal. This could all make for rather grim and ponderous reading in different hands but Dr Worsley’s trademark chatty, light hearted style saves it from this and ensures that it is never anything less than an incredibly entertaining and occasionally thought provoking read.

I was, of course, most interested in the chapter about Jack the Ripper – being a Ripperologist myself but also because Dr Worsley tweeted me to say that she thought about me while writing it, which has got to be my GREATEST CLAIM TO FAME TO DATE (yes, better than appearing on Lovejoy as a teenager and equal to singing with Napalm Deth). As expected, this chapter took a rather wry view of Ripperology and the continuing fascination with the bloody events of autumn 1888, but I have no issue with this as I like to cast a rather wry and cynical eye over it myself most of the time! It was an interesting read though from the point of view from the media excitement that marked the Ripper murders and made what was actually a rather squalid and miserable series of murders into a sensation and the link between the Whitechapel Murders, Sherlock Holmes (who made his first appearance in the same year as his most natural adversary Jack the Ripper) and our almost romantic thrilling to the notion of Victorian foggy and gaslit streets.


British enthusiasts of violent murder. Photo: Melanie Clegg.

Ultimately this is a great and splendidly entertaining read for anyone who takes even a passing interest in that great British hobby of devouring all the most trivial details of grisly murder and I’d definitely recommend the television series, which started last week, as well.

The whole thing reminded me of the occasion a few months ago when I went on a long walk around Bermondsey and Clerkenwell with a large group of my fellow Ripperologists. We bumped into a massive group of fully costumed morris dancers going in the opposite direction through the Clink and I wryly noted on Twitter about ‘Ripperologists and morris dancers staggering past each other in The Clink. Two weird old British traditions colliding.

A Very British Murder is on BBC4 at 9pm on Mondays and can also be seen on catch up on BBC iPlayer.


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A Very British Murder
Copyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Melanie Clegg

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