I like detective stories. Always have, always will. In fact I have a deep affection for those set in medieval or classical times, even though I know they’re complete bollocks. Not the point, it’s a way to chill out, to curl up with a glass of red and an entertaining story that causes you to escape someplace else, even if someplace else wasn’t really like that.
So I’ve been reading Judith Flander’s book on the Victorian invention of murder and how in one case penny dreadfuls – Victorian melodramatic novels, cheaply written by hacks paid by the line, evolved from the printed broadsheet and pamphlet accounts of murders and executions. Newspapers were taxed so these pamphlets filled a need for sensation, and given that they were mostly bought and shared around by the poorer parts of society, what it implies for literacy in mid nineteenth century England – ie that more people could read, if not well, than generally thought, and if they couldn’t read well, they knew a family member who could.
Not that the middle classes were so superior. Even the Times gave into to sensationalism and dramatic reporting of murder trials to sell copies, as well as spreading fear and paranoia about servants poisoning their masters, abducting their daughters and so on.
Looking at these cheap paperbound pamphlets also helps us see how Dickens and Wilkie Collins, to name but two, basically were writing the middle class equivalents of these penny dreadfuls, often rehashing much the same material lifted from court reports in the newspaper.
In one case,Wilkie Collins’ use of an epistolatory style seems to parallel the way that depositions and incriminating love letters were reported and published in newspapers in Glasgow in one case of a middle class girl gone bad who was accused of poisoning her foreign lover. (And in this case sex definitely sold – even if the details were not printed in the papers, enough was given away to allow the middle class readers of the Glasgow Herald put two and two together and have a shiver of tittilation over the breakfast marmalade)
And of course, there are no police detectives in the early novels – just interested family members, vicars or what have you for the simple reason that there were no ‘official’ detectives before the 1880’s. And of course this tradition of the interested amateur is what gave rise to Miss Marple and the other unofficial detectives of early twentieth century literature (as well as of the police being bumbling and incompetent – because in the early days they often were).
A number of crime writers have contended that a nation’s crime novels really reveal the anxieties and preoccupations of a country – looking back we can also see that the crime novels of a time also reflect the anxieties of the time …