Saturday, October 24, 2009
Some types of literary genre are inalienably linked with a culture or nationality. For example, the ‘western’ is an art form always set in the American west. There is no absolute reason why this should be so. Westerns could be set on the frontier of any expanding empire be it Rome, Russia or Britain, but they never are. Similarly, one associates serial killer stories with the modern United States notwithstanding that the media-serial killer was invented in London. Gangster stories are another American literary genre. Again, there is no particular reason for this. The American mafia never got a hold in London because there was no opening. London has always had its own organised crime.
But there is one literary form that is indisputably English dominated and that is the murder mystery story. The bestselling novelist of all time is Agatha Christie. Only Shakespeare has sold better and I am not sure we should class him as a novelist. Christie did not invent the genre; she is simply the most famous exponent.
An English murder mystery is quite different from a crime story or a police procedural. Murder is committed on some upper class or generally respectable member of society for reasons that are not immediately apparent. There are always plenty of suspects but those that have the motive do not have the opportunity and visa versa. More murders follow. Eccentricity spirals through the story like a bright copper wire. The victim and suspects are eccentric and the detective is, if anything, weirder. Midsummer murders, the latest successful TV murder mystery broke the mould slightly by having a perfectly normal family man as the detective. That did not last, however. Barnaby’s wife and daughter take up increasingly eccentric activities and recently it transpired that Barnaby was an MI6 agent. Murder mysteries are solved by ‘the little grey cells’ not by car chases, shoot outs, or patient police work.
So why is this genre so associated with England? Is it just because of Christie or is there something deeper going on? To put it another way, are there real life murder mysteries in England? Well take a look at these.
There is a village in Herts, one of the Home Counties, called Furneux Pelham (pronounced Furnix) of 250 residents. One morning in 2004, an NHS carer found their patient, Colonel Workman (rtd from the Oxforshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry), dead of a shotgun blast on his doorstep. The Liberal Peer, Dame Shirley Williams is a neighbour. The Colonel has lived there for 40 years, alone since his wife died the previous year. He had no enemies and was not robbed or professionally assassinated. Suspicion fell on the Puckeridge Hunt because they have shotguns but, then, so does everyone in this area.
A 999 call was received that morning alerting the police to an incident in Furneax Pelham from a phone box in the nearby village of Braughing, referring to the Colonel’s cottage by its old village name of 24 years previously. A year later a prisoner in Parkhurst alerted the baffled police to the Colonel’s secret life as an active homosexual in London gay clubs in the 50s and 60s. As far as I know neither the murderer nor the caller has ever been traced despite police investigations in America, Africa and the Med. The problem was that neither Miss Marple nor any of her relatives lived in the village.
Or how about the English civil servant with gambling debts who cancelled his wife’s car insurance forcing her to cycle everywhere then trying to run her down in a stolen sandwich van? Or the sex-mad spiritualist minister who murdered his wife, who was a TV makeup artist, and left her body by the track of the steam railway which he helped run. Or how about the farmer who tried to kill the postmistress, his wife, with a tractor so he could collect on her life insurance and run off with the village pub barmaid? Then there’s the royal dentist who murdered his wife and his lover’s husband.
There really is an English murder.