A Brief History of The Murder Mystery
Murder is the epitome of crime. Crime scenes are bloody, gruesome, and not a place most would willingly step into. Real life killings appall any decent person.
So why are we so obsessed with murder mysteries? What makes murder in literature more attractive than in real life? What captures the mind when reading crime as opposed to seeing it?
I used to think it was the fiction that made a murder mystery appealing. The crime was made up and therefore acceptable. I loved trying to race Sherlock, Nancy, and Hercule to the conclusion and I thought that is why so many love the dark genre.
It wasn’t until I watched the Lucy Worsley documentary A Very British Murder that I really understood where the murder mystery begun and how it morphed it’s way into the bestselling lists.
Back in the late Regency/early Georgian era, murder was rare. Most criminals were petty thieves. Breaking and entering, pick pocketing, and fraud were everyday occurrences. One couldn’t go a month without being on some end of one of these crimes. Back then, these matters were less than entertaining. Why would you read about a pickpocket after you had just been robbed?
Murder was not a primary concern. Most civilians did not dwell on the idea. Not because it was disturbing but because murder had not been publicized to them.
Just like today, media had a great influence on the commonwealth’s minds. Newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets were the main forms of entertainment. You could read about the latest gossip, last week’s hanging, and the out of country fashions. These were the topics on people’s minds. That is what they talked about with their friends.
The press didn’t find need to report murder thus the commonwealth’s minds didn’t occupy it.
This precept changed radically with the killing of a family. The Marrs were a respectable family, all found dead in their home by their maid, Margaret. The young couple, their baby son, and the apprentice who lived with them, were brutally killed, mercilessly and without motive.
This story was unlike anything the public had ever seen. It had mystery, treachery, gruesomeness, and the most important of all…entertainment.
The murder house was opened to the public. All stations of people were admitted and could even see the bodies laid out.
Today, this is unimaginable. Strangers cannot traipse through crime scenes. And why would any one want to see dead bodies, heads bashed in, throats cut? People actually paid to visit the crime scene. Why? Out of fear, curiosity, and a want to assist in looking for clues.
Are these not the same reasons we open a mystery book? To experience shivers, to answer questions, and most importantly, to become detectives. The public response to the Marr’s murders was less of fascination with the murder than with that of the story.
The press soon discovered that this murder mystery made their newspapers sell like hot cakes. The blurred lines of fiction and fact reported in articles were full of drama, enigma, and murder.
Many historians believe this to have been a result of mob mentality. Everyone else was rushing to the crime scene, why not do it too? I do not think this as so. If this first fascination with murder mystery had been a mere fad it would not have survived the test of time. But it has. In fact, it has thrived!
You and I know the invigorating feeling a good murder can induce. Fictionalized or not, a story captivates. Add in a genre that you have never read before, and a wretched one at that…it’s a recipe for success.
The Ratcliff Murders were the first seedlings of what was to grow into a murder phenomenon. Detectives, who had never been seen before, were officially sent out to investigate crime. Homicide was now a legitimate fear, as well as a legitimate form of entertainment. Victims and their murderers would become characters in their own stories. Penny Dreadfuls would begin to appear. These short stories were printed in newspapers and magazines, written specially for these new murder lovers.
Nowadays we would cringe at these stories. They are called penny dreadfuls for a reason. Buy a horrific mystery for cheap! For the lower class in the nineteenth century, whom reading was becoming more and more common, these penny dreadfuls were delightful. The genres we call horror, thriller, and mystery were all smashed into a few short pages. Every single paragraph was vivid and over dramatic.
Everyone loved it.
Being apart of a real life crime, cruel and inhumane, must be an exciting experience…unless your the body of course. But not everyone is called (or has the stomach) to be a detective. Yet one ,ay still experience the “detective fever,” as Wilkie Collins puts it in The Moonstone, …in the pages of a book.
A reader can feel the chills of fear, satisfy their appetite for adventure, and solve a murder or two all from their own bed.
What more could a person want?
I am dead excited for Murder Mystery month! Not literally dead…it was just an expression. Monday, October 5, 2020, my blog series “Murder, Mystery, and Meaning” will be posted! The thought that murder mysteries, one of the best genres, can contain value and even positivity makes me giddy with joy! I’m dying to share the series with you! Again, I’m not actually dying…
What is your favorite murder mystery? Whether you prefer a series or a certain detective, you have to have a favorite. My favorite is Sherlock Holmes…no wait Flavia de Luce! No, Lord Peter Whimsey. Wait! Father Brown! I suppose you can have multiple favorites?