Saturday, October 5, 2013

Crime Stories by Judith Flanders

Early-nineteenth-century fiction, together with its eighteenth-century forefathers, had understood the law to encompass punishment, not detection, and the developing professionalism of police had a negative connotation: money corrupted justice. In Godwin’s Caleb Williams the detective’s motive is, according to de Quincy in 1845, ‘vile eavesdropping inquisitiveness. G.W.M. Reynolds, in The Mysteries of London, put it more simply for his working class readers: a policeman ‘doubtless has several golden reasons for not noticing anything’ in a rich man’s house, while he ‘instantly ran after a small boy who he suspected to be a thief, because the poor wretch wore an uncommonly shabby hat.’ In Martin Chuzzlewit, likewise, Chevy Slyme joins the police on purpose to be ‘bought off’.

While Inspector Bucket (Bleak House) in 1852 had done much to dispel this attitude, it was an earlier series of stories, begun in 1849, that was the first native-born foray into detective fiction for the sake of detection. These pseudonymous Recollections of a Police Officer appeared in Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal over four years, and were presented as the memoirs of a real policeman. However, ‘Charles Martel’s’ The Detective’s Notebook, similarly presented as a memoir in 1860, is a mix: some episodes are old-fashioned chase stories, but others start to develop the idea of detection as a skill.

The main way of telling fictional memoirs from real ones is to look at the crimes. A real detective, James McLevy, who joined the force in Scotland in 1833, claimed to have worked on more than 2,220 cases by the time he produced two volumes of reminiscences, Curiosities of Crime and The Sliding Scale of Life, both in 1861. The cases he described included the theft of hens and tobacco, a mugging, a pick-pocketing. All except two, one a concealment of birth, the other a murder, were property crimes, and the sentences ranged between sixty days (for the theft of some ducks), nine months (the concealment of birth) and fourteen year’ transportation (the murder, reduced to culpable homicide). The volumes were reprinted a few times, but had no great success. How different were the stories of James McGovan, whose Brought to Bay was published in 1878 and sold 25,000 copies. McGovan claims that McLevy was his ‘old friend’, and presents his work as reminiscences too, but here the stolen ducks are superseded by vast jewel thefts, a murder disguised as a suicide, a counterfeiting ring run from ‘Fegan’s’.  These are romances, tales of plucky young lads, broken-hearted mothers, noble sisters. Here there is no place for a crime such as McLevy reported, a man who stole 4 ½ d. from an old woman –every penny she had in the world. McLevy’s world is the real world, a world where Helen Blackwood, a Glasgow prostitute, shared a room measuring eight feet by six feet with her lover, two other prostitutes who stayed there intermittently and two homeless boys, aged nine and eleven, who she let sleep under her bed. This was reality. .  .

In 1888 Whitechapel serial killer was real yet everything we know about Jack the Ripper – his name, his persona, his reasons for killing - is a culmination of a century of murderous entertainment, of melodrama, of puppet shows, of penny-dreadfuls and more. The excitements, the fears and the sense that murder was a spectacle were all focused by the killings, and projected onto the blank screen of unknowingness created by the lack of a solution to the crime. The Whitechapel murderer operated for ten weeks; “Jack the Ripper’ was the product of the entire previous century. And this mythical figure, in turn, opened the door to a new century of killing, a vastly less entertaining, and more frightening, proposition.

Murder had developed, as de Quincy had prophesied. An apparatus had developed around murder, a scaffolding: there was a police force now; there were detectives. There were stage shows featuring detectives, there were waxworks, puppet shows, songs, sketches; there were, most importantly of all, detective stories and novels. Crime fiction took this new scaffolding, and covered it with an attractive surface. Now it had a shape, and a raison d’etre. The detective stands with his back to the fire: ‘You may be wondering why I have summoned you all together,’ he pronounces. No one wondered any more. Detection – in fiction, at any rate – made the world safe. The sleuth hound would track down the murderers and bring them to justice; no longer would people have to look over their shoulders in fear. The cunning of the criminal was matched on stage, on the page, by the wisdom of the hunter.

Repeated over and over, this archetype became, in people’s minds, reality. Most people in Britain had never had to worry about murder: by the nineteenth century it was vanishingly rare, by the start of the twentieth century, therefore, love of blood could be indulged in safety and security, without any far of ugly reality bursting in. Instead, oceans of blood could be cheerfully poured across the stage, across the page, in song and sermon. Murder was, finally, a fine art.

1 comment:

  1. “People are beginning to see that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads, a knife, a purse and a dark lane. Mr. Williams has exalted the ideal of murder to us all. . . he has carried his art to the point of colossal sublimity.” –Thomas de Quincy