He saw, he wanted

Jenny Diski

  • Murder at Wrotham Hill by Diana Souhami
    Quercus, 325 pp, £18.99, September 2012, ISBN 978 0 85738 283 2

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.

Orwell published his famous essay ‘Decline of the English Murder’ in Tribune in February 1946, six months after the end of the war. The golden period of English murder, Orwell explains, is over, with the greats – the Maybricks, Seddons and Armstrongs – having committed their peculiarly English dastardly deeds before 1925. The perfect English murders were carried out by ‘little men of the professional class’; they were generally domestic poisonings, and while the underlying causes were sex or money, the murderers were driven to kill by a desperate need to prevent a loss of social position. Maintaining respectability was the real reason for killing. These days, Orwell complains, murder has a wild American edge to it. The 1944 spate of killings known as the Cleft Chin Murders, a kind of cross-Atlantic Bonnie and Clyde affair involving a GI deserter and an 18-year-old ex-waitress from Neath on a killing spree, have an unpleasant arbitrariness to them. ‘The background was not domesticity, but the anonymous life of the dance-halls and the false values of the American film.’ Orwell uses the words ‘wanton’ and ‘callousness’: ‘There is no depth of feeling in it.’

In October 1946, eight months after Orwell’s only partly humorous complaint about the senselessness and greed of modern murder, Dagmar Petrzywalski hitched a lift in a lorry to take a puppy to her brother and sister-in-law. She often hitched, but only accepted lifts from lorry drivers, never private cars, whose owners she thought unreliable. This lorry driver killed her by strangling her with her makeshift scarf – a jumble-sale-bought darned man’s vest she had wound round her neck for warmth when she set out at dawn. Her killer dumped her body by the side of the road, ate the week’s ration of cheese she had brought as a present for her sister-in-law but threw her jam sandwiches away, and dropped her bag into a nearby river before completing his assignment by delivering a load of bricks to the cider works near East Malling, a little way down the road. The puppy was never found. It was neither a respectable middle-class murder nor a crime straight out of an American movie. Although prescient about the longer term, Orwell had missed out on a transitional form.

In Murder at Wrotham Hill, Diana Souhami has seen the missing piece, and with great clarity and attention to its cultural meanings as well as to the pathos of the protagonists, re-created this casual murder, showing it to be as charmless and petty as the times themselves. The killing had echoes of the past and intimations of the future, but in all its details, the people involved and their backgrounds, the detection, the trial and the sentence, it was, in Souhami’s telling, a story precisely of its period and place – perplexing, distressing, overcast, postwar austerity England. After six years of fighting, hardship, fear and Blitzkrieg, no one could say in 1946 what there might be to look forward to. There was some hope after the Beveridge Report in 1942, and a new degree of basic security when Attlee instituted the welfare state in 1945, but the war debt kept rationing and other austerity measures in place until the mid-1950s, and the actual condition of people’s lives hadn’t changed much. What remained stable after the war was difficulty and uncertainty; and what was most uncertain, then as always, was the singularity, the baffling inner workings of individuals.

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