Rudrum, David (2008) The Mysterious Case of the English Murder: The Britishness of Crime Writing. In: Britishness, Identity and Citizenship: the View from Abroad Conference, 5th - 6th June 2008, University of Huddersfield. (Unpublished)

In February 1946, George Orwell published a short but witty essay entitled ‘The Decline of the English Murder’. The piece both charts and laments the demise of a specific kind of criminal: the English gentleman-murderer, who commits his crimes in a domestic, often suburban setting; whose motives arise largely from status anxiety or sexual repression (or both); and who commits his crime in a manner that befits his gentility. In December 1944 – only a year previously – Raymond Chandler published his essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’. Though normally read for its spirited defence of American ‘hard-boiled’ detective fiction, of which Chandler was a master, this essay is in actual fact predominantly concerned with the features and problems of the very same genre as was Orwell: the quintessential ‘Englishness’ of traditional crime writing. Both writers concur that, in its setting, structure, sociology, plot, and dramatis personae, the typical crime story thrives in an upper-middle class, English environment. Yet Chandler, though he views the genre Orwell describes with much fondness, nevertheless considers it far too quaint, too out of touch with the modern world, to succeed at any intellectual or artistic level. Orwell, however, regards the genre of English crime writing as a telling reflection of the English ideology: in its sociological dimension, it illustrates, amongst many other things, the deeply problematic assumption of a link between morality and the class system. It will be my aim in this paper to stage a critical debate between these two contemporaries over the cultural identity, sociology, and politics of crime writing in the mid-twentieth century. In so doing, the paper will draw out and compare the critical and political implications of Orwell’s and Chandler’s views for a genre whose place in literary history has always been hotly contested.

Add to AnyAdd to TwitterAdd to FacebookAdd to LinkedinAdd to PinterestAdd to Email