Author: Lucy Worsley
Finished on: 2 August 2016
Where did I get this book: Bought from the same Waterstones cabin as A Is For Arsenic at the Buxton festival
Unbridled enthusiasm is a quality I much admire, and it seems in sadly short supply these days. I struggle with the Nick Grimshaw/ Adam and Joe-style never say anything like you really mean it tendency. And the Radio 6 Music-style completely deadpan delivery, getting excited would be so deeply uncool tendency.
Against this backdrop of insincerity and understatement, I was so happy when Lucy Worsley came into my life.
I watched, and hugely enjoyed, her BBC series to accompany this book in 2013. An enthusiastic and massively intelligent female presenter. And loads and loads of murder. Heaven on a stick.
Worsley is interested in that question that has long puzzled me: Why do I find murder so comforting? Worsley’s theory is that the safer and more sedate our lives have become, and the less actual murder is going on, the more we enjoy hearing about it. It is the danger at arms length that a good murder provides that is comforting – I’ll take that, as it means I am safe and sedate, rather than morbidly weird as I had feared. A Very British Murder was also the series that introduced me to my now beloved Dorothy L Sayers (even more beloved after reading about her exploits in the Detection Club in this book). It turns out that, as well as being a fantastic writer of fiction, Sayers was a prolific reviewer. She certainly puts my output to shame.
In just two years, between June 1933 and August 1935, she reviewed 364 detective novels.
Bloody hell. I am ashamed now.
So I have loved Worsley ever since watching that programme. She is in fact one of my guests at my ideal (living people) dinner party ensemble: Worsley, Slash, Hilary Mantel, Angela Lansbury, Idris Elba and Tom Hardy on rotation, and me makes six. What a splendid evening we would have! But anyway, back to the book…
Worsley provides us with a well-researched and fascinating insight into the history of murder as entertainment in Britain. It also, coming hot on the heels as it does of my reading of my first ‘proper’ feminist book since university, provides a brilliantly balanced picture of female and male perspectives, both in real-life and fictional murder. For example, quoting fellow historian Mary Hartman on the contemporary responses to real murderess Florence Bravo’s killing of her husband, and the rare glimpse the trial provided into mistreatment of a wife by her husband, we hear that:
The female readers avidly consuming the reports of murder trials ‘could understand the frustrations and terrors of the accused, for they had travelled some of the same dark paths themselves.’
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the way that the history of murder as entertainment goes hand in hand with the history of policing and the history of journalism, all developing together in this dysfunctional but highly symbiotic relationship. Genuinely illuminating. But probably my favourite aspect of Worsley’s writing is when she departs from her measured, academically rigorous (but always entertaining) prose, to give us a glimpse of pure personality.
To hear Gaudy Night written off as the critic Julian Symons does in Bloody Murder (1972) is not unusual, but it remains infuriating. When I read the page where he states that ‘Gaudy Night is essentially a “woman’s novel” full of the most tedious pseudo-serious chat between the characters that goes on for page after page’, I threw Mr Symons’s book on the floor, and stamped upon it.
Love it. Are you surprised that I want this lady to be my friend? I have done that with annoying books before. (I once ‘accidentally’ left a book that had deeply irritated me out when my dog was a puppy and chewing everything in sight. She dutifully did her worst, and I came down to see it in most satisfying shreds all over the floor the next morning.) I did go and meet Worsley to ask her to sign my book after her talk at the Buxton festival, but I managed to refrain from asking her to be my friend. Obviously, we would be bosom buddies under the right circumstances, but I realise she has no way of distinguishing me from a crazy stalker at a book signing.
So, I must make do with reading her – which is fine to be honest, as this is a superb read. And has also provided me with an excellent explanation to give my boss if I need to call in sick to work when engrossed in a particularly unputdownable murder story. As described by Wilkie Collins:
Do you feel an uncomfortable heat in the pit of your stomach… and a nasty thumping at the top of your head?.. I call it the detective-fever.
I definitely suffer from frequent cases of this.
A brilliantly interesting book. Thanks Lucy. Dinner next week yeah? Slash wants our view on a couple of new riffs, and Hilary is bringing a draft story for us to look at. Are you ok to do the pudding?