True crime – an odd phrase, since its opposite, ‘untrue crime’ looks quite meaningless – is a well-established category in bookshops, and I’ve always been drawn towards the groaning shelves beneath it. And there is no doubt that murder cases lend themselves to publication. Newspapers deprived of murder cases wouldn’t sell half as well – Victorian newspapers were no different from those today, except that modern papers have to use the word ‘alleged’ a great deal more often. As Kate Summerscale’s really terrific account of the Constance Kent case (‘The Suspicions Of Mr. Whicher’, the deserved winner of the Samuel Johnson biography prize this year) shows, rival Victorian newspapers were almost completely unconstrained by fear of libel, and printed all sorts of allegations. (Incidentally, Summerscale’s earlier book, ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’, is just as brilliant.)
In Orwell’s essay ‘The Decline of the English Murder’, he refers to a supposed golden age of murder: “Our great period in murder, our Elizabethan period, so to speak, seems to have been between roughly 1850 and 1925.” He pictures a Sunday afternoon luxuriating in the News Of The World’s accounts of domestic poisoners. But nothing has really changed. The accounts of murders continue to fascinate. It is the one way in which we recognise that we are all just fragile skin and bone, I suppose. But is also evidence of the voyeur which sits inside us – I say ‘us’, I hope it’s not just me. I think there may even be an unspoken question within us all – ‘Could I ever, under any circumstances, have been driven to do that?’
Films and fiction would argue that anyone could commit a murder, if revenge was the motive. And most murders are, at some level, about revenge – revenge on poverty, revenge on inadequacy, revenge on some preceived injustice. I think most murderers are probably driven by need rather than greed (I am excluding political killing on any level, and killing by the mentally ill, although in both cases, even here there is often just a suggestion of need for revenge). Or am I being a particularly woolly liberal?
Conscious that I am labouring the idea that human beings are fundamentally unselfish, I am going to retreat to where I came in: the book-shelves. Some of the very best writing (for instance that of Gordon Burn) has been about murder, about the background to the case, about the interior and exterior world inhabited by the killer and the victim, and the clash between the two. Indeed, if Orwell were alive, he might well feel that ‘the Elizabethan age’ is taking place now. One of the best books I’ve ever read is Paul Foot’s account of the death of Helen Smith in Saudi Arabia, and another, the same late and almented writer’s accounts of two perceived miscarriages of justice, in the Carl Bridgwater case and in the Hanratty case. The latter case sems to have been undone by DNA testing linking Hanratty to the A6 murder after all, but Foot’s account presents so much evidence, written in such lucid prose, that I think there will always be a doubt – not least because Hanratty accumulated so many witnesses to say that he was in Rhyl on the night of the killing, and because of the existence of a plausible confession by another man, and also the strange evidence that the murderer was a very poor driver (Hanratty was a highly skilful driver).
I don’t think anyone who’s read Foot’s book could help but wonder about the surprise of the DNA evidence (forty years after the evidence) which did not exonerate Hanratty but damned him instead. We put a lot of faith in DNA, don’t we? The Hanratty case continues to haunt me.
And of course, the trickle of miscarriages continues – the latest to be ‘exonerated’ is Crippen. There is a particularly strange attraction in cases of miscarriage. It satisfies an urge in us to believe that the law is not as clever as it thinks it might be. So I will go and see what authors have added to the store of Murderers. Perhaps I will find something like the work of William Roughead (1870-1952), a Scots lawyer who specialised in the accounts of murder trials, and who has a lugubrious, convoluted prose style which might have appealed to Henry James (here I am being disingenuous. Henry James was a fan of Roughead’s).
There’s only one thing I am sure of, which is that there is no more murder now than there was 200 years ago. There are just more people, and more methods available. If you can, find a wonderful book called Hooligan: A History Of Respectable Fears, by Geoffrey Pearson (1983). It argues persuasively that each generation says that things were better in the old days, and goes successively backwards to prove that the people in these old days were saying the same about their own old days.