He saw, he wanted
- BuyMurder 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.’
Vol. 34 No. 22 · 22 November 2012
From Edward Pearce
Contrary to what Jenny Diski writes in her melancholy article about the Wrotham Hill murder, James Chuter Ede was not an abolitionist any more than Herbert Morrison, his Labour Home Office predecessor, had been (LRB, 8 November). His Criminal Justice Bill of 1947 was widely assailed for its rigidity and he retreated, conceding that all capital sentences should be assessed on their merits. He signed death warrants across his six years as home secretary, but did later soften his views in the light of the Timothy Evans case.
Vol. 34 No. 24 · 20 December 2012
From Neville Twitchell
Edward Pearce says that James Chuter Ede, home secretary in the 1945-51 Labour government, was ‘not an abolitionist any more than Herbert Morrison’, citing the 1947 Criminal Justice Bill in evidence (Letters, 22 November). It would be truer to say that he had been an abolitionist in his pre-governmental days, but that he had retreated from those views in office, perhaps under pressure from his officials and especially the strongly retentionist permanent secretary, Sir Frank Newsam. Chuter Ede had been a supporter of abolitionist amendments to the 1938 Criminal Justice Bill and, as Pearce concedes, reverted to this stance once he had left office. He became a strong supporter of abolitionist bills in the 1950s, actuated, he claimed, by the knowledge that he had allowed the execution of Timothy Evans, by now revealed to be almost certainly innocent. The 1947 Criminal Justice Bill, which was completely different from that of 1938, was a liberalising measure which, inter alia, abolished corporal punishment as a judicial sentence. Incidentally, Chuter Ede was one of several home secretaries who had been abolitionist before or after, but not during, their tenure.