Why are we, like Webster (you know your TS Eliot), so much possessed by death? Not the slow decline of inevitable ageing and mortality, which is the unavoidable fate of us all and which we refuse to acknowledge, contemplate or come to terms with, but violent death. In 2013, when the population of England and Wales was fifty three and a half million, there were five hundred and fifty one murders. Or, in other words, you are infinitely more likely to win the Lottery (always worth looking on the bright side, I find, even if only to fill in the time until we die; which will not be at the hands of others).
Yet murder forms the staple of television drama. Otherwise perfectly pleasant people who have a tendency to recoil squeamishly at the traumatic idea of squashing a wasp wade knee-deep in gore as they settle down on the sofa in the evening. It is one of the wonders of the modern world that the housing market in the Cotswolds has remained so buoyant, what with all those serial killers portrayed in Morse, Lewis, Endeavour (mostly melodramatic if well-acted should you not have seen this prequel series) and Midsomer Murders (purest ham and suggesting that south Oxfordshire is in the grip of a population decimation not seen since the Black Death). We particularly enjoy sitting unmoved and supine before tales of serial killers: indeed, in the implicit league table of murderers, there is something a bit namby-pamby and not-really-trying about the villain who only kills once.
These crimes – which I do rather hope would produce a more empathetic, not to say wildly hysterical, response in what we laughingly call real life – have literary form. Cain, of course; a tale told with admirable brevity in Genesis: and after him, a grand parade of the vengeful, the greedy, the psychotic and the frankly panic-stricken. Snuggle down in your staggeringly safe home and enjoy.
Shakespeare, who lived in a rougher world more prone to using its fists and knives, gives us Macbeth – a terribly plausible decent chap who plummets into an unstoppable chain of murders and loses his soul in the process (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice but far, far, darker – although now I think of it I quite fancy Mickey Mouse as the Scottish King). And, what with being a man of his time and all that, Shakespeare also gives us Lady M, whose fault it all is. It’s that pesky double X chromosome, you see. Did you know that the most popular topic for carving onto the elaborate marriage-beds of the sixteenth-century rich was Adam and Eve? The point, dear newly-married couple, is not so much the blissful existence in Paradise, but the Awful Warning that Eve rocked up in Adam’s comfy homosocial world – just him and, well, Him – and ruined everything. Girls, hey? One of the great triumphs of the Enlightenment is that, in patches and in places, we have, at least from time to time, moved on.
My goodness, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries really had a problem with women. When they’re not the sexually voracious evil villains of the piece – try Beatrice-Joanna in The Changeling or Vittoria Corombona in The White Devil – they are being murdered on stage in such numbers that I can’t help thinking that the writers had spotted exactly what sells tickets: yup, our old friends sex-and- death, with women as the she-probably-deserved-it fetchingly draped body (we will have a crack at getting our heads round the fact that the bodies in question were boys in frocks another day). Have things, in books at least, changed? Let’s have some murders on this week’s bookshelf.
No self-respecting crime library should be without representative texts from Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and (plonking prose but rattling plots) Agatha Christie. Ah, feminist revenge: weary with being the victim, women rose up and wrote the stuff themselves. It just crosses my mind to wonder (I offer it as a PhD topic should no-one have got there first) whether women writers kill off more chaps. And we must have EC Bentley’sTrent’s Last Case, if only because it is always spoken of as a classic of the genre so we look a bit awkward if we’ve never read it (I don’t know that it’s the most gripping thing that I’ve ever read, but it’s good). Raymond Chandler is another sine qua non, even if you will frequently have no idea what is going on (nor did he, apparently). It is a pleasing coincidence that the two greatest prose stylists of the twentieth century went to the same school – Dulwich College, and the other is, as of course you know, PG Wodehouse, whose murder mysteries, had he written any, would have been byzantinely plotted and shimmerlingly narrated (oh come on, Sebastian Faulks: a clear and obvious next best-seller for you).
Edith Pargeter, writing as Ellis Peters, successfully created an entirely believable world in her twenty or more Brother Cadfael books. As murders, especially murders in fiction, go, they are lightly drawn and it is unlikely that you will have nightmares. Their quality lies in the skill with which she breathed life into her twelfth century monk, his friends, colleagues and enemies, and the streets, manors, hovels and fields of Shrewsbury and Shropshire. There have been many – hordes – of imitators, all of which seem to me to fall at the first hurdle of failing to digest their research before regurgitating it into their narratives. If you think you have an historical novel in you, (a) think again and (b) read Ellis Peters very carefully and thoughtfully before you begin (but unless you are Jude Morgan, (a) will still be the correct answer).
The other series which I heartily recommend is Donna Leon’s Brunetti novels. Over the last twenty years or so, Ms Leon, an American living in Venice, has mined deeper and deeper into the politics and psyche of contemporary Italy via the medium of her detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti. It is worth, should you not have come across them, starting at the beginning with Death at La Fenice, which is a competently plotted crime novel with the ravishing setting of La Serenissima and a detective who arrives fully-formed into the canon of crime fiction. But keep reading; it feels as if Leon has grown in scope and confidence, and the later novels are dark, disturbing (this is a recommendation, by the way) and have profound things to say about the state of Europe today.