My husband and I watch a lot of great BBC murder mysteries on DVDs from the library, so it came as no surprise when he brought home The Art of the English Murder, a companion book to a BBC series entitled A Very British Murder (not currently available on disk in the States). The book’s jacket proclaims that it covers “from Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock.” And that range is both the book’s strength and its weakness.
Lucy Worsley pieces together a mosaic of British murder, beginning with the infamous Ratcliffe Highway Murders and the resulting media frenzy. She follows with subsequent murders and murderers, factual and fictitious, and the growth of broadsides, the Penny Dreadful, and Gothic novels. She surveys novelists from Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and Arthur Conan Doyle and then moves on with more depth to the great ladies of detective fiction—Dorothy Sayers, Margaret Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Agatha Christie. She details the history of the Detection Club—“more than a dining society but less that a trade union”—founded by Golden Age crime novelists of the late 1920s concerned with keeping “the detective story up to the highest standards that its nature permits, and to free it from the bad legacy of sensationalism, clap-trap and jargon with which it was unhappily burdened in the past.” Worsley documents the decline of the mystery and the rise of the thriller (quoting Dorothy Sayers’s pithy observation that “The difference between thriller and detective story is mainly one of emphasis. Agitating events occur in both, but in the thriller our cry is ‘What comes next?’—in the detective story, ‘What came first?’ The one we cannot guess; the other we can, if the author gives us a chance.”). Worsley dips into movies and noir novels before she winds up her survey.
She covers a lot of ground, some richly detailed and some barely glanced at. There are meaty tidbits throughout the book—the use of arsenic, the Victorian actor Richard Mansfield’s electrifying performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the rise of real-life forensic scientists, the spectacle of public hangings—but I came away feeling that tidbits tied between book covers was what I got: The Art of the English Murder is not a history of murder and detection in England, nor is it the history of the English detective novel. And despite the book jacket’s promise that the author “reveals why we are so fascinated by this sinister subject,” the author never really gets to that why in her book—although she delights in piquing our morbid curiosity throughout.