Monday, 27 November 2017

True Crime

I love the crime fiction of what is called the Golden Age - the books by Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers especially. Of course, I've always known, vaguely, that they have nothing whatsoever to do with anything that happened or happens in the actual world I live in. I've also been vaguely aware that there are many people now who have a passion for another kind of crime narrative called "True Crime" but until I looked at a couple of BBC documentaries about detectives working in the Manchester police, I didn't realise how sad and complex true crime stories can be.

In the two documentaries that I saw, the Manchester police were working on two cases. The first involved trying to work out who had killed a young homeless man who was found bashed to death in an area underneath some arches in the city. There he and various others of about his age who had somehow lost their way in life and succumbed to idleness, drugs and drink, had established something they thought was a kind of home. None of the people involved seemed irredeemably depraved, just lost and so hopelessly misguided that getting back to anything approaching a stable existence seemed unlikely. They were people's children but, for whatever reason - either never having themselves had stable homes or perhaps just wilfully - they had tumbled out of normal life. Yet they imagined they had established some kind of little tribe or team, a band of brothers (and one sister), until one night violence broke out, pointlessly, senselessly, and one of them was savaged to death by the others.

The second case also involved homeless people but the victim was not homeless, just extremely confused. He was a young student who, for whatever reason, began to try to hang round some drunks who spent their time in an open space in the city centre. The student told the drunks he had started to like wearing women's clothes. Possibly he also came along dressed in women's clothes - this wasn't made absolutely clear.

Anyway one of the drunks became very angry and chased the student away, with threats of violence. The student disappeared for a while but, when he turned up again, the drunk who had chased him away decided to pretend not to mind him and even asked if he could come to his house for a shower. When the student agreed and the two went to the place where he lived, the drunk murdered him. He then gave himself up to the police, explaining that he knew he would do it again and he wanted to be locked up.

This murderer was a wretched soul, but he had the redeeming quality of being able to stand outside himself. He had done a terrible thing but I found it astonishing that he was able to recognise that there was one part of his personality that he couldn't control and, puzzlingly, given the deeply immoral thing he had just done, to make a moral choice to prevent himself from ever doing such a thing again. The film included a poignant sequence in which we saw this man talking to his mother on the telephone, comforting her, telling her that she must always have known this would happen, that he'd always been a wrong 'un, persuading her that he had to be locked up as he didn't want to kill again and knew he couldn't stop himself.

This was so puzzling - a man who was capable of great evil, who had committed an act of great evil, who believed he could not prevent himself from repeating that act, but who also did not want to commit evil. Thus, in the same body, there existed two contradictory impulses, and he was attempting to overcome the evil that was part of him by having himself locked up.

These were not entertaining stories, there was none of the sense you get in Agatha Christie of a perfect world, its calm shattered briefly by violence, but by the end everything mended and made orderly again. This was reality, not escapism, this was the messiness of human beings and our strange nature. These stories were much more intriguing, of course, than the entertainments featuring Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. All the same, an evening on the Orient Express was, on the whole, the more enjoyable experience, while I recognise that all we were being given was a beautiful pantomime.


  1. One of J.V. Cunningham's "Century of Epigrams" runs

    With a Detective Story
    Old friend, you'll know by this how scholars live:
    The scholar is a mere conservative,
    A man whose being is in what is not,
    The proud tradition and the poisoned plot.
    He is bewildered in the things that were,
    He thrives on sherry and the murderer,
    And with his bottle on a rainy night
    By Aristotle's saws brings crimes to light.
    So with this murderer may you make merry,
    And we'll redeem him with a glass of sherry.

    Of course, the real thing is far messier. It was one of Raymond Chandler's aims to give the business back to those it really belonged to. (Or so I remember him writing.)

    1. The strange thing is that the fictional form is comforting, despite its often gruesome content