April 13, 2011, 8:11 pm
Filed under: brave new world, departure lounge | Tags: ,

Tea, a pipe, the evening edition and … murder, please.  Or maybe to update it a bit: an evening in, popcorn, someone you love and a nice bloody murder movie.

Show us the body first, cut and cold, in the woods or splayed across a big chair in a living room, like the one I’m sitting in now, reading this paper or watching this movie.  Then bring in the detective, an outsider, foibles fully on display, with razor sharp wit, always on the move: assessing, searching, reasoning, intuiting, questioning, psychologizing, smoking.  We need foils and blockages, false turns, malevolent and coy personalities whose roles flip:  fool us again and again with each new revelation.  Now wind it tight in time:  a deadline against which the detective races.

What is the appeal of murder to the middle class?  There are two ways of looking at murder in a comfortable society:  as an aberration, or as a part of the system that maintains its ease.  It’s simple to accept murder as aberration; all of the sordid details and undesirable characters — the cops, the detectives, the murderer and even the victim — are totally foreign to our lives.  It’s the difference that fascinates us.  Detectives are agents who act on our behalf to quell the violence and return us to our ordered lives.  They are heroes of the culture:  Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Morse, Wexford, Miss Marple, Alleyn, Jonathan Creek, Jane Tennison, Inspector Rebus, Father Brown, Tom Barnaby, Bergerac, The Saint, Cadfael, Cordelia Gray.

The other idea, that murder plays a role in maintaining the balance of our lives, is harder to swallow.  In this theory we are snuffing the violence that is daily bubbling up within us, in our own minds.  We are the perp and maybe also the detective and the victim.

In the following excerpt from his essay The Decline of the English Murder, George Orwell describes how the traditional English murder is changed for the worse by the Cleft Chin murders which were perpetrated by Americans on English soil.  The traditional British murder had to have a motive, was often domestic, and always discreet (usually accomplished by poison).  The British cultural bias for a native social order reflects in how they take their murder.

The Cleft Chin murders were the opposite:  wild, unpredictable, irrational.  There were no motives, it was killing for fun; they upended the norms of British murder, and changed things forever.

Orwell says – in 1946 – the CC murders will be forgotten, and maybe they have.  If you watch or read a contemporary British, and even American, murder story, the formulas are as strong as ever:  motive is king and reason and psychology are the tools for unearthing the truth.  Regardless of your stance – aberrationist or essentialist – in fact and fiction, the fundamental forms of murder prevail.

Following is the excerpt:

What the public wants:

It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the NEWS OF THE WORLD. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood. Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?

Naturally, about a murder.

The British murder / profile of a murder:

With all this in mind one can construct what would be, from a NEWS OF THE WORLD reader’s point of view, the “perfect” murder. The murderer should be a little man of the professional class–a dentist or a solicitor, say –living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall. He should be either chairman of the local Conservative Party branch, or a leading Nonconformist and strong Temperance advocate. He should go astray through cherishing a guilty passion for his secretary or the wife of a rival professional man, and should only bring himself to the point of murder after long and terrible wrestles with his conscience. Having decided on murder, he should plan it all with the utmost cunning, and only slip up over some tiny unforeseeable detail. The means chosen should, of course, be poison. In the last analysis he should commit murder because this seems to him less disgraceful, and less damaging to his career, than being detected in adultery. With this kind of background, a crime can have dramatic and even tragic qualities which make it memorable and excite pity for both victim and murderer.

An aberration:  the Cleft Chin Murder:

They met a girl bicycling along the road, and to show how tough he was Hulten ran over her with his truck, after which the pair robbed her of the few shillings that were on her. On another occasion they knocked out a girl to whom they had offered a lift, took her coat and handbag and threw her into a river. Finally, in the most wanton way, they murdered a taxi-driver who happened to have £8 in his pocket.


Perhaps it is significant that the most talked-of English murder of recent years should have been committed by an American and an English girl who had become partly Americanized. But it is difficult to believe that this case will be so long remembered as the old domestic poisoning dramas, product of a stable society where the all-prevailing hypocrisy did at least ensure that crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them.

Decline of the English Murder, George Orwell


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