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.
In 1941, Petrzywalski was bombed out of her rented room in a house in Camden Town on a particularly dreadful night known as ‘The Wednesday’. Her landlord was killed, and although she was out at the time her nerves gave way. She resigned from her job of 25 years as a telephone operator – a ‘hello girl’ – and moved into a bare shed she called ‘The Vic’, which she had built next to her mother’s bungalow on a plot of land in Kingsdown near Wrotham Hill in Kent. Her parents had left London in 1931, having become increasingly impoverished. Jules François Petrzywalski was the youngest, directionless son of an otherwise successful family whose patisserie in Regent Street was mentioned in The Gentleman’s Guide to Europe. He had died, aged eighty, seven months before his daughter was killed, leaving an elderly widow.
Neither Dagmar nor her mother, Mame, had running water, heating or an indoor lavatory. They both lived on small pensions. Dagmar kept chickens and grew vegetables as the government exhorted people to. She made clothes out of odds and ends bought at jumble sales – like the repaired man’s vest she used as a scarf. She was 45, had received little affection from her family, was passive, solitary, socially awkward, a virgin, and was known in the family to suffer from headaches and ‘nerves’. She was competent, independent, and conscientiously looked after her mother when her father died. The puppy she was taking to her brother had been bought as a companion for Mame, who decided, after all, that it was too much of a responsibility.
Dagmar’s murderer was Sydney Sinclair, a.k.a. Harold Hagger, 45 years old, a bigamist, several times an army deserter under various names, a petty but violent criminal with 17 charges on his sheet, and a regular inmate of prisons around the country. He seems to have been given up on at an early age by his working-class parents and 13 brothers and sisters. At this point, for the first but not the last time, Souhami breaks with the police procedural narrative she seems to be writing, to cite the Stanford experiment of 1972 in which small children were left alone in a room for 15 minutes with a marshmallow: if they didn’t eat it they would get two later on. Follow-ups 14 years on suggested that the 30 per cent who held out had ‘better coping skills, were more socially competent, self-assertive, trustworthy, dependable and academically successful’. It’s this willingness to open up the expected format that makes Murder at Wrotham Hill so compelling about its time and the attitudes of those living in it, rather than simply a voyeuristic account of a misfortune of bad timing that caused two miserable and pointless deaths.
Dagmar’s murderer would have eaten the marshmallow immediately. Souhami presents Sinclair, boy and man, as constitutionally unable to resist immediate gratification. ‘If he saw something he wanted he took it. He didn’t see the wrong in it, only the gratification if it worked. It was his tactic for survival and a behaviour pattern that became entrenched. He was impulsive, aggressive and anxious and his life quickly became chaotic.’ He was ‘a wilful dodgy boy, a feral creature who did nothing right, lied, thieved and bit his nails. He was the fifth child, and there was too much hardship and struggle to try to understand his physical and emotional needs.’ There is no suggestion that his many siblings suffered from the same problems, so although the size and poverty of the family he was born into are acknowledged as being implicated in his greed, they aren’t presented as an excuse, or as a solution to the mystery of why an individual fails to develop an average degree of self-control. It seems reasonable to suppose that the irresistible urgency of passing desires is at the root of much lifelong recidivism then and now. Whether a more nurturing environment would have made something else of him is unknowable, though it could hardly have done any harm.
There is nothing singularly postwar or ‘modern’ about the way Sinclair led his haphazard life. Orwell’s orderly middle-class crime was always a fraction of the mass of casual, opportunistic crime committed by those who act on wanting. There was no need for American movies, though they perhaps provided a new cultural vocabulary. A lack of development, thought, education, encouragement, a character flaw, an abusive upbringing, a psychotic tendency? We don’t seem to understand the incorrigible ruiner of lives – their own and other people’s – very much better today, although we have more technical words to cover our ignorance.
At one point, earlier in his criminal career, Sinclair threw himself, handcuffed, out of a train in which he was being taken to court, and for a time remained unconscious in hospital. When he found himself in trouble he told people that as a result he had headaches, dizziness, blackouts. But although he was officially given a diagnosis of psychoneurosis, none of the doctors he saw thought the fall had caused any damage to his brain. The prison system seemed aware of his recidivist tendencies and didn’t entirely overlook the possibility of rehabilitation, but failed to find a way to alter what looks like a stumbling but inevitable progression towards catastrophe. The army considered him essentially unreformable and finally dismissed him.
After methodical detective work by the famous Fabian of the Yard, a TV favourite in the 1950s, Sinclair made several ‘confessions’, each one trying to explain away new evidence that made the previous confession untenable. Finally, he admitted the killing and explained that Dagmar had got in the cab of the lorry and asked him for money, offering sexual services in return, then stolen his wallet from the coat hanging beside her while he was busy groping her. It was while he was fighting to get it back, and to stop Dagmar’s screaming (which inflamed his brain-damaged nerves), that Sinclair had hit her and then tugged on the vest around her neck, blacked out, possibly, and found her lying limp across the seat when he came round. Everything he did after that was a panicked attempt to cover up the ‘accident’, including, I suppose, eating the cheese but throwing away the jam sandwiches. Souhami responds to Sinclair’s final confession by imagining his thought processes as he attempts to place the blame on the woman he murdered. As the canny Fabian lets him get further and further into the mire, he starts to talk about the sly, sexual ways of women. Neither Fabian nor the jury was remotely convinced. No one, knowing or being told about Dagmar, could possibly believe Sinclair’s story. She suffered from fibroids in her uterus, but was too embarrassed to talk about things ‘down there’ to see a doctor, so she simply mopped up the bleeding with rags. She was known to have had plenty of money on her when she set out. Other lorry drivers who regularly gave her lifts said that she always offered to pay them the equivalent of the fare at the end of the journey, though they usually declined to take it. Nothing anyone knew or said about her remotely suggested a woman who would or could offer sex for money and then steal a wallet in an isolated spot she couldn’t possibly have escaped from on foot.
What actually happened can’t be known: there were no other witnesses. But in a longish section Souhami reconstructs the events as they probably happened. She imagines Dagmar’s reluctance to get into Sinclair’s lorry (he was going in the wrong direction) and his assurance that it would only take a moment to deliver the bricks, then he’d get her on time to the train she was intending to catch. Sinclair turning off into a side lane and propositioning Dagmar. Dagmar’s attempt to get out of the lorry. Sinclair’s fury at being rebuffed. Her screaming. Sinclair hitting her and her fighting him, and then his strangling of her in his rage. In an afterword, Souhami imagines the puppy having been found and taken care of by a friendly thatcher and living happily ever after, and she’s entitled to that. But although her version of what happened is entirely plausible, the murder would perhaps have been best left unreconstructed, for us to imagine for ourselves.
Sinclair was, of course, found guilty and sentenced to hang. There was very little chance of clemency and he appeared to accept the teleology of his life. However, the final section of Souhami’s book goes beyond merely tying up the story with a hanging, and focuses on Sinclair’s execution as a way of discussing the grimness of capital punishment. It is a complex and thorough analysis, tinged with a proper moral distaste for the idea of murder by the state. She first spends some time on Albert Pierrepoint, the official hangman, whose vocation ran in the family. Pierrepoint gave in his notice in 1956, wrote an autobiography and became a ghoulish celebrity who ran a pub, after having executed 435 people. He seems to have been a man not entirely unlike Sinclair in his lack of self-knowledge, but who was born into a job that bizarrely kept him on the straight and narrow, believing he ‘was sent on earth to do this work’.
Capital punishment was not abolished by Parliament on a free vote until 1965, yet the Criminal Justice Bill of 1938 had already proposed not only the abolition of the death penalty, but also ‘an end to corporal punishment, “hard labour” and “penal servitude”’. The bill was dropped at the outbreak of the war, and when it returned to Westminster in 1947, after the Nuremberg and Lüneburg trials (some of the Nazi war criminals were hanged by Pierrepoint, who travelled for his work), the abolition clause was dropped. In the Commons debate Quintin Hogg spoke with grim logic:
We have just been hanging our defeated enemies after the trials at Nuremberg. They were prosecuted not as an act of war but as an act of what was claimed to be justice … If we were going to say that it was at all times and in all circumstances wrong to take human life, whatever evil-doing the malefactor may have committed, then the time to say so was before Nuremberg and not immediately after.
Souhami gives details of those tried and executed at Lüneburg. The trials were conducted by a British military court set up to deal with crimes against Allied Nationals, and many of the accused had been functionaries at Belsen and other concentration camps. All of them famously pleaded, as many at Nuremberg couldn’t, that they were only obeying orders. The degraded behaviour of the accused is described and placed plainly alongside the grimness of Pierrepoint’s meticulous executions. Both are distasteful in the extreme, and Souhami allows that to remain the case.
Had the war not intervened, the Criminal Justice Bill would have passed in 1938; had the postwar trials not resulted in executions for reasons of more or less than justice, capital punishment would have been ended by the abolitionist home secretary, James Chuter Ede, in the postwar Labour government. Either way, Sinclair would not have hanged – his death as gruesome and pointless as Dagmar’s, good for nothing but providing biblical satisfaction. The recent war, and the realities of postwar England, were implicated in his death as they were in hers. The executions of war criminals, and the pervasiveness of innocent death over the past six years, the difficulties people had lived through and the anger at those who committed crimes during such hardship all militated against both the abolition of capital punishment and the exercise of clemency. Looked at from any angle, the times that Dagmar Petrzywalski and Sydney Sinclair lived and died through remain at the heart of the story.