Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The decline and fall of the English Murder

'It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood. Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions and soft underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about? Naturally, about a murder.'

So began George Orwell's 1946 essay, Decline of the English Murder. He went on to draw a rather strange distinction between the 'good murders' of old, and the rather random killings one read about in the News of the World of the day. The 'old domestic poisoning dramas' like that of Dr Crippen were the 'product of a stable society where the all-prevailing hypocrisy did at least ensure that crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them'. However, since the 'war period', characterised by fear of death from above by 'the doodle-bugs', 'the readers of Sunday papers...say fretfully that "you never seem to get a good murder nowadays"'.

Orwell was certainly right to note than if you a living under a world system where thousands of innocent people die during war every year then life is cheapened somewhat. But arguably the 'decline of the English murder' was taking place, albeit in another way to that envisaged by Orwell.

The inter-war period in England was the golden age of the detective story. The way to success had already of course been paved by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his detective Sherlock Holmes (1880s-1890s). This was all about using what Doyle called 'the science of Deduction and Analysis' to outwit criminal masterminds. Ironically, in lauding a brainy, Bohemian violin playing drug addict like Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle was hardly saying very much for his own law abiding Victorian bourgeois values. However, it is the likes of Agatha Christie with Poirot and Miss Marple (1920s-30s), and GK Chesterton's Father Brown stories (1930s) that stand as the classics of the genre. In general, they had a rather strict formula which they followed. Murder at the start, a small number of characters who were all in the vicinity and so are 'suspects' and more importantly do not leave the crime scene, a short timespan, and no arch villains (as in Conan Doyle). The motives were limited to greed, revenge, jealousy etc and in general are not of interest. The drama is about solving the mystery, and the stage now shifted from the foggy streets of London and Paris to more refined surroundings such as the drawing room of an English country house, or aboad an Oriental express train or Egyptian river cruise. Upper class settings and values dominate these novels. Their success in large part rested on their ability to tap into middle class nostalgia for the pre-First World War world, which appealed after the dislocation and bloodshed of the 'Great War'.

However, after the Second World War, things changed again and the decline of the English murder now took place. This was due to a number of factors, not least the rise of organised crime. Events like the St Valentine's Day massacre (1929) and bosses like Al Capone in the US had permeated into the consciousness of people internationally. As the late Belgian Trotskyist Ernest Mandel noted in his 'social history of the crime story', Delightful Murder (1984), 'the coming of age of organised crime tolled the death knell of the drawing room detective story. It is impossible to imagine Hercule Poirot, not to mention Lord Peter Wimsey or Father Brown, battling against the Mafia.'

The turn to stories about professional cops as the new heroes around the time of the Second World War is described by Mandel as 'the first great revolution in the crime novel'. Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe was still a traditional private eye, but in other ways epitomises the new turn back to the mean streets. As Mandel notes, 'social corruption, especially among the rich, now moves into the centre of the plots, along with brutality'. The leisurely pace of an Agatha Christie novel was replaced by direct hard hitting dialogue. The new heroes increasingly were not little old ladies like Miss Marple but spys and secret agents like Ian Fleming's James Bond. However, not all crime novels celebrate imperialist state power or the forces of 'law and order' - some highlight the contradictions and hypocrisies of capitalist society.

Take my favorite crime story, Mario Puzo's The Godfather (1969), an absolute classic. Mandel describes the background to the writing of this novel, noting Puzo had 'earlier demonstrated a critical social consciousness, in his efforts to stigmatise in an almost Swiftian manner - the resemblances between bourgeois society and the criminal environment in the United States. One of his first essays bore the title: "How crime keeps America healthy, wealthy, cleaner and more beautiful." In another, Puzo wrote "How are we to adjust to a society that drafts human beings to fight a war, yet permits its businessmen to make a profit from the shedding of blood? As society becomes more criminal, the well-adjusted citizen, by defintion, must become more and more criminal." His portrayal of the top American criminal 'Don Corleone' as the best adjusted American citizen took things to their logical conclusion.

My favorite bit of dialogue is when Michael Corleone is talking to his fiance, Kay. "My father is no different than any other powerful man -- any man who's responsible for other people, like a senator or president." Kay replies that "You know how naive you sound...senators and presidents don't have men killed." "Oh, who's being naive, Kay?"

With the current state of permanent war, one hopes that we see more of such anti-capitalist crime novels.

Overall, it appears Orwell was right to note back in 1946 that there are just no 'good murders' anymore. We get random stabbings today to the tune of F16s overhead. As Mandel noted, 'growing militarisation on the one hand, and children screaming "I'll run a knife into you" at their mothers or school teachers on the other, are just two polar expressions of the same historical trend'. The next time you hear Blair talking about getting tough on 'anti-social behaviour' and 'yobs', remember who the real criminals are.

P.S. Karl Marx himself wrote about the relationship between bourgeois civilisation and crime, in for example, his Theories of Surplus Value, here

The criminal breaks the monotony and everyday security of bourgeois life. In this way he keeps it from stagnation, and gives rise to that uneasy tension and agility without which even the spur of competition would get blunted. Thus he gives a stimulus to the productive forces. While crime takes a part of the superfluous population off the labour market and thus reduces competition among the labourers—up to a certain point preventing wages from falling below the minimum—the struggle against crime absorbs another part of this population. Thus the criminal comes in as one of those natural “counterweights” which bring about a correct balance and open up a whole perspective of “useful” occupations.
The effects of the criminal on the development of productive power can be shown in detail. Would locks ever have reached their present degree of excellence had there been no thieves? Would the making of bank-notes have reached its present perfection had there been no 183 forgers? Would the microscope have found its way into the sphere of ordinary commerce (see Babbage) but for trading frauds? Doesn’t practical chemistry owe just as much to adulteration of commodities and the efforts to show it up as to the honest zeal for production? Crime, through its constantly new methods of attack on property, constantly calls into being new methods of defence, and so is as productive as strikes for the invention of machines. And if one leaves the sphere of private crime: would the world-market ever have come into being but for national crime? Indeed, would even the nations have arisen? And hasn’t the Tree of Sin been at the same time the Tree of Knowledge ever since the time of Adam?

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At 7:53 pm, Blogger Martin Wisse said...

You might want to read "Raffles and Miss Blandish", Orwell's essay on the declining standards of detective stories.

At 12:39 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Thanks a lot for that recommendation - what an amazing little essay (that manages to bring together Stalin/power worship, cricket and Al Capone, among other things).
Orwell never ceases to surprise.

At 4:17 pm, Blogger bat020 said...

Brecht once remarked that the appeal of crime novels lay in the fact that crime was "the only possible adventure in bourgeois society".

FWIW, my favourite analysis of crime novels is Raymond Chandler's superb essay "The Gentle Art of Murder".


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