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The Appeal of the Historical Murder Mystery

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." ... The Go-Between L P Hartley

 It is a great line, but the fact is that the past is not so very foreign after all. The accessories of life change, and change massively, what was beyond knowledge can become commonplace; the food changes, the transport, the pace of life itself, but the historical murder mystery is about people, and people do not change. The motivation for murder is pretty consistent through the centuries, which is why we can settle down with an historical murder mystery and not feel it is alien. In fact, it might even be described as ‘cosy’, since it distances us from the ‘nastiness’ of murder, cocooned as it is by the passage of time, and that distance sanitises it in a way that cannot apply to a contemporary crime novel.

People kill other people out of anger, lust, greed for power or things, revenge, fear, madness. They do that today in Birmingham and Budapest and Boston Massachusetts. They did that in twelfth century Worcestershire as well. They commit those murders in basically the same ways, using poison or strangulation, the good old ‘blunt instrument’ or the ‘killing weapon’ which is today a firearm and in the 12thC was a sword or a dagger. We have almost forgotten, in the age of CSI, that methods of detection relied almost entirely upon observation and experience for centuries, until first the fingerprint and now DNA analysis, took it to another level. Detectives, and yes, technically they did not ‘detect’ until the word was first used in the 15thC, used their senses and good sense. Of course, the fiction is in the depth of investigation. If you look even only as far back as the Elizabethan assizes documents you find that the crimes that came to court were the sort that today would be the ‘bread and butter’ murders that every police force meets regularly, the domestic, the killing in the execution of another crime, the brawl that gets out of hand. There were inquests, and the coroner’s jury decided if the death was misadventure, natural, felonious killing or murder. If the death was a criminal act then the suspected individuals were tried. (Incidentally, almost all cases of a wife killing her husband really were through poisoning, so gentlemen, you have been warned.) There is no sign that there was any convoluted method by which the person or persons who were accused had been discovered, and the ‘clear up rate’ was probably not one which a modern constabulary would accept. If you did not find out ‘who did it’ within a few days, then the chances were that you would never find out, unless the murderer committed that classic error of killing someone else. The more people you kill, the more likely you are to be caught, because connections appear. The investigation of murder, and indeed other crimes, is a mixture of science and an art. Catchpoll’s ‘Cwisker ruby and the cwee modo’, the ‘who, why, where, and how’, show that mix. The science has moved on exponentially and gives the ‘where’ and ‘how’ to help reach the ‘who’ but the art, which is the analysis of ‘why’, getting into the mind of whoever did the act, seeking the reason, the motivation, is still down to looking at evidence and drawing conclusions. Just as murder is for the same basic reasons, the ‘art’ is about the same basic skills.

‘The past is the next village; they do things much the same there, but they have more old houses,’ is possibly more accurate, but not nearly so good or memorable a line as L P Hartley’s