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Morbid, Hideous and Delicious

Ordinary dangers in extraordinary times can seed potent crimes

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

When the first so-called ‘sensation’ novels appeared in the 1860s – Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s infamous Lady Audley’s Secret and Mrs Ellen Wood’s East Lynne – they took as their settings not the urban criminal underworld favoured by Dickens, or the forbidding battlements, candlelit corridors or frozen wastes associated with the gothic, but the apparently safe domesticity of the country house. That they were anchored in the ‘everyday’ was what made them most potently menacing. Their complex plots revolved around stolen inheritances, poisonings, imprisonments, adulteries and night-shrouded skulduggery, but it was the proximity of all this to the familiar that most viscerally unsettled readers. For a while they enjoyed unprecedented popularity.

Sometimes called ‘newspaper novels’, the ‘sensation’ plots could have been taken straight from the Newgate Calendar and they mirrored the emotive press coverage of real offences, feeding a Victorian appetite for reading about transgression and brutality. Proclaiming themselves to be (as Mrs Braddon put it) ‘morbid, hideous and delicious’, they were calculated to electrify: fear was more than part of their appeal. Critics were appalled, arguing that they drugged both thought and reason.

What is it about the human condition that delights in inviting fear by engaging with brutal stories wrapped in a familiar setting? Why, during certain periods in our literature and our popular culture, do we hunger particularly for the representations of ‘ordinary’ people caught up in violent crime?

When the real-life banker Thomas Briggs was bludgeoned in the first-class carriage of his suburban train in 1864; when little Saville Kent’s throat was cut and he was found in the outside privy of his elegant family’s rural villa; when prosperous broker James Maybrick was apparently poisoned by his adulterous American wife, the Victorian press had a field day. These crimes, located at the very heart of the middle-class ideal, were supra-sensational, like the plots of novels spilling out into reality.

Then, as now, the greatest public fear – and therefore the most reporting and the most popular books, from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood to Gita Sereny’s Cries Unheard and Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, to the Danish television series The Bridge – has always arisen when the victim is middle-class: when they are Everyman, Everywoman or Everychild. The first railway murder, then – up in first-class rather than down in third – was dubbed ‘a terrible drama of real life’ and the Daily Telegraph wondered, in 1864, whether it all increased the likelihood of Mr and Mrs ‘Ordinary’ being assassinated at [their] dinner table.

In life and in fiction these dramas provoke equally extreme reactions because they play on a fuzzy but pervading sense of latent danger that develops alongside the realisation that ‘progress’ also destabilises many of the orthodoxies that once underpinned society. In the second half of the nineteenth century, ancient Biblical and scientific certainties were being overturned; the class system was in flux; workers and women alike were demanding self-determination. Modernity was changing everything faster than ever before and its benefits and drawbacks became the subject of furious debate. Lurking beneath it all was a growing uncertainty about where the individual fitted into this new moral and physical universe.

Today, as the digital revolution changes our own world at a pace that is sometimes beyond comprehension, we are no less concerned about the cost of progress and the proliferation of apparent threats to our diurnal safety.

Think of the Soham girls; Madeleine McCann; Joanna Yeates. These crimes, added to anxiously shifting times, prick remorselessly at the dread possibility that one’s own existence could be plunged into a kind of existential hell. Thus, perhaps, our fanatical scrutiny of the details of violence: we are interested because the victim might have been one of us; simultaneously, we are able to reassure ourselves that the tragedy knocked on someone else’s door.

Having effectively distanced ourselves from the crime, we turn armchair detectives, picking over the ‘evidence’ in newspapers, books, on TV, titillated by prosaic clues like unlocked windows, snatched silk toppers or the implied menace of a missing nightdress or sock. All the while, we long to believe in the precious infallibility of our detectives — Holmes, Sarah Lund or the real ones, historical or contemporary. We demand a quick resolution that will prove us safe. Impatient of human failings, we insist that science be harnessed to the cause of certainty: that forensics will root out evil and cauterise our fear.

But is our temptation of fear more than an attempt to distance it or to be reassured by the implicit promise of order reimposed? Could it also be a shot at understanding the source of ‘evil’? For if we can unpick the circumstances that incubated a ‘monster’ then we give it a face: it no longer stalks on silent feet, lurking invisibly in our very shadows.

Most recently, Åsne Seierstad’s One of Us – an unflinching account of Anders Breivik’s mass-murder on the Norwegian island of Utøya – lingers on the painful reality of each individual death. We know this territory: it is that of Capote, Mailer, Sereny, Summerscale. When our confidence is shattered in the security of our own established routines, we clamour to understand the psychology of the perpetrator (Muller, Constance Kent, Perry Smith, Gilmore or Breivik), and we thirst for that retribution that marks a resumption of normality.

What our Victorian ancestors were really after – and we no less – were answers to questions that repeat: how should a civilized nation deal with threats to its security, its moralities? How can it avert the kind of marginalisation that so often leads to violence? When should it judge, censure and intervene, and how early? And how damaging, on the other hand, is our raucous clamour for justice?

Tempting fear, and locating it within recognisable geographies is, in other words, about seeking certainty. Do the responsibilities of the novelist, historian, screen-writer or dramatist, then, differ? Surely they must, for we have seen that historians are impelled to puncture the illusion and accept that the whole truth is an impossibility: motives will remain unclear, brutality is often random and unpredictable; endlessly, it is able to slink silently away from detection.

Beyond writerly techniques like the manipulation of pace and viewpoint, narrative history is, unlike the novel, bound to allow the most terrifying thing of all: the unknowable. Non-fiction retellings of fearsome crime are thus likely to raise as many questions as they answer and so, for instance, no parent having read Seierstad could in future remain unmoved when their teenager departs for a residential camp. Unlike the readers of sensation novels, the audience for non-fiction will remain unsedated; the fear they invited will never – ever – be completely excised.

Kate Colquhoun’s latest book, Did She Kill Him?: a Victorian tale of deception, adultery and arsenic, is out now in paperback.

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