“Scratch John Bull . . . and you find the ancient Briton who revels in blood, who loves to dip deep into a murder and devours the details of a hanging,” The Pall Mall Gazette wrote in 1887, a year before Robert Louis Stevenson’s story “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” became a stage play. People packed the theater night after night, some fainting after witnessing Richard Mansfield’s performance, which included an extraordinary onstage transformation from monster to doctor. This appetite for gore as entertainment spawned a major industry in print, theater and artifacts in 19th-century England.
Lucy Worsley’s lively book, “The Art of the English Murder,” traces the growth of this industry through some of the era’s most avidly followed killings. Her goal isn’t to provide a history of crime or crime writing, but to show how “the British enjoyed and consumed the idea of murder.” The interplay of urban growth, a rapid rise in literacy, the development of a professional police force and the creation of crime fiction is an important back story to her narrative, one that has already been well explored in Judith Flanders’s “The Invention of Murder” and Kate Summerscale’s “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher,” which takes its title from the name of one of the first detectives enlisted by Scotland Yard in 1842.
Worsley’s book was published in England as a companion to a BBC television series, “A Very British Murder,” on which Worsley was a presenter and for which she acknowledges consulting the work of both Flanders and Summerscale. References to artifacts she handled and the experts she interviewed as part of the show give the book a chatty flavor. There is also a source list for each chapter, though footnotes would have helped clarify some of Worsley’s claims (her statements, for example, on the social class of the readers of murder broadsides).
Worsley begins with Thomas De Quincey, who wrote about the appetite he and his friends — most of them writers — had for crime as entertainment. In an 1827 essay, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” De Quincey looked back on their fascination with a brutal set of murders in 1811 in London’s docklands. Calling his friends a “Society of Connoisseurs in Murder,” he described them as a group who “profess to be curious . . . in the various modes of carnage.” At their meetings, he explained, the club members discussed and assessed “every fresh atrocity . . . which the police annals of Europe bring up; they . . . criticize as they would a picture, statue or other work of art.” The Society was fanciful, the creation of De Quincey’s inventive if opium-filled brain — but he was also describing the actual behavior of him and his friends, including the poet Coleridge, who “damned” one catastrophe because it didn’t include casualties.
Murder and hangings had, of course, provided public entertainment before the 19th century. Watching inmates writhe and moan at Bedlam, the hospital-prison for the mentally ill, had long been an activity that affluent English and European tourists enjoyed. What changed in the 19th century, Worsley writes, was the scale of public consumption. Thousands of people would traipse through crime scenes in a way that might make the modern crime consumer of “C.S.I.” and “N.C.I.S.” cringe. Worsley also reports on a brisk trade in grisly souvenirs. Most grisly of all, the head of the hanged murderer William Corder, which London fairgoers paid handsomely to view.
Worsley traces the written coverage of crime from the broadsides and Penny Bloods of the early 19th century through the growing market for detective and horror novels of a later era. In a time of low literacy and high poverty, “patterers” would stand on street corners and read broadsides that reported crimes, usually with a fine disregard for the facts. Many patterers would act out the drama — the better the acting, the bigger the audience and the sales. As literacy increased, the broadsides turned into articles in the first widely sold newspapers. Novelists also started catering to the public appetite for mayhem. After Scotland Yard’s detective branch was established, readers developed “detective fever”: Thousands of people wrote in to present their own theories about various murders, and the detectives were required to read and annotate them all.
Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins shared the public’s fever, embedding themselves with the police and basing their fictional Inspector Bucket and Sergeant Cuff on the real-life detectives. Even earlier, Dickens had covered crime as a personal passion. “Oliver Twist,” like many of his novels, is based on actual crimes; “twist” was well-known argot for hanging.
A bonus of “The Art of the English Murder” is Worsley’s interest in women writers, partly the grandes dames of the 1920s and ’30s like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, but also several whose work has been forgotten, including Catherine Crowe, whose “The Adventures of Susan Hopley,” published in 1841, is a detective story appended to a Gothic tale of false identities and stolen inheritances. Her detective is a servant and a woman, “powerless, . . . unnoticed and unsuspected.” Although her book was a best seller, Crowe was harshly criticized, notably by Dickens.
The first murders to draw large audiences were committed in poor neighborhoods or among prize fighters, but by midcentury readers preferred murders involving the affluent. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” went onstage immediately before the Jack the Ripper murders began, and Worsley offers a brief but compelling argument that its plot became conflated in the public mind with the Ripper case. She suggests that this fueled speculation about the Ripper’s identity as a member of the royal family. The painter Walter Sickert was another suspect. Some were even convinced that the killer was Richard Mansfield, the actor who portrayed Jekyll/Hyde. No one wanted to believe — then or now — that the Ripper may have been an ordinary dock worker or seaman.
Worsley ends her book with George Orwell’s unhappy assessment of crime writing in 1946, sparked by the popular “No Orchids for Miss Blandish,” which included the “flogging of Miss Blandish, the torture of another woman, . . . a third-degree scene of unheard-of cruelty and much else of the same kind.” Orwell’s dismay was prescient: Sadistic violence takes up an ever larger part of current crime fiction. While scholars debate whether its use in the work of Stieg Larsson or Pierre Lemaitre or Mo Hayder is necessary to highlight violence against women, the fact remains that detailed descriptions of torture, snuff films and brutal rape sell books. Our desire to consume atrocity has continued unabated, two centuries after De Quincey invented his Society of Connoisseurs in Murder.
THE ART OF THE ENGLISH MURDER
By Lucy Worsley
Illustrated. 312 pp. Pegasus Crime. $27.95