Category Archives: Worsley, Lucy

Review of 'A Very British Murder' by Lucy Worsley

Available from BBC.

This book is a tie-in to accompany the BBC4 series of the same name (which I didn’t watch, because I don’t watch television).  Even though it is not an academic publication, it reads very much like one, in that it is thoroughly researched, with facts thoughtfully presented and synthesised to generate new information, and the author’s views balanced with meaningful comments from (real) academics… And P D James, who, as always, made more sense than the rest put together.

The author tackles the issue of why we Brits find murder fun. Indeed, why do we? We are a tasteless, prurient lot, soaking up all the salacious gory bits about true crimes and fictional ones. And we do this in a different way to the Americans. In fact, in what Lucy describes as ‘The Golden Age’, we liked our murders served up deadpan, with a few lines about a dagger and perhaps a very small patch of wet blood on a dinner jacket, after which we moved on to the Cluedo-like puzzle of  working out whodunit. The Americans on the other hand preferred a celeb detective, with a massive ego, snarling and drawling from a screen, not a printed page. But it wasn’t always so. Difficult as this might be for some of us to believe, detective fiction existed pre Agatha Christie.

Lucy takes us through the course of murder stories from Thomas de Quincy (Confessions of an English Opium Eater) in the 1800s to Scandi Crime – or does she? She takes through the appetite for true crime in the nineteenth century, including the salacious interest generated in the Ratcliffe Highway Murders and Jack the Ripper, and many Victorian authors and authoresses of which I’d never heard. She wrote about how murder fiction was presented, as ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ with woodcut illustrations, and how, even in those days, authors and readers tended to be female.

She then discusses what she calls ‘The Golden Age’, that is detective fiction written between the two World Wars, and particularly the female quartet consisting of Agatha Chrisite, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham, who wrote what has also been called ‘cosy crime’ – Butlers in Conservatories, middle-class, country houses.  Lucy rightly points out that these detective novels were written in a comfortable way because, in the age when they were being published, readers, who were recovering from one war and being psyched up for the next, needed reassurance.  However, a lot of her other criticism of this genre reflects fashions in writing style and could be levelled at much literature written at this time, that characters were thin and stories were plot-led. The author also got her knickers in a twist about ‘The Golden Age’ being so ‘middle class’ –  maybe the middle classes should have nothing written for them at all?

The point where I really take issue is that, at the end of the book, she moves on far too fast from her ‘Golden Age’ , through thrillers and Noir to the present day, with a glancing reference to Scandi.  Lucy has completely missed out the generation that followed the ‘Golden Age’, still with their roots in ‘cosy crime’, even with a few servants in their earlier works… but moving on and gradually becoming darker  – writers like Ruth Rendell, P D James and Kate Atkinson.  Whole swathes of other modern writers she doesn’t mention either : Alexander McCall-Smith (the cosiest of them all) and Ian Rankin, and many, many more, some cosier than others.  Going back the servant issue, she could have made more of P D James’s preoccupation which cleaners as suspects in many of her later works.  The author could also have mentioned detective fiction in children’s literature, and possibly explored why it is that young teenagers often move on from children’s and YA books to Agatha Christie.

So would I recommend this work?  Yes, I think so, but more work needs to be done.  I believe her conclusion to be incorrect:  I think cosy crime, with its links in the ‘Golden Age’, is alive and thriving.