The Literature of Crime

By Whittington-Egan, Richard | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

The Literature of Crime

Whittington-Egan, Richard, Contemporary Review

MURDER, especially if the vast stream of fictional blood-lettings is taken into the reckoning, is surely the single subject, with, perhaps, the exception of theology, which has stimulated most prodigally the cacoethes scribendi. The literature of what, since the nineteen-eighties, has, in order to distinguish it from fictional mystery, crime and detective stories, been somewhat unmellifluously, labelled 'True Life Crime'. The subject treated of in this newish category has, in the course of the last 300 or so years, burgeoned very respectably - if that is the right word - to flourish like a green bay-tree. Dr Crippen's name and shame still resonate in the Jungian collective unconscious; although his mathematical inferior, he has been in no way diminished or vanquished by Dr Shipman--albeit that at this precise juncture it would seem that it is only books about Jack the Ripper or the Brothers Kray that can be virtually guaranteed to achieve for their authors the illusory permanence of paper and print, not to mention the delusion of solvency.

Harking back, the apotheotic Victorian interest in murder, was directed especially to the manifestations of malice domestic and the allurement of the lady with the poison bottle, and extended culturally to the embrasure of The Ring and the Book. Nonetheless, the beginnings of this branch of literature were humble indeed: ephemeral, street-hawked single-sheet ballads, penny and halfpenny broadsides, catchpenny prints, pamphlets, chapbooks and moralities, inspired by contemporarily famous and fascinating pieces of mischief, and embroidered with dire, cautionary, tongue-in-hypocritical-cheek admonishments - religious, philosophic, 'improving'. One of the most bountiful begetters of this sub-branch of literature was James or Jemmy Catnach, the Man from the North, who, arriving in London from Newcastle in 1813, set up his printing stall at Seven Dials.

All these primitive productions were, of course, transient, flimsy nibblings for the hungry moths of time, and the intention here is to identify those records of murder and malfeasance which may be regarded as constituting the classic literature of the criminous. Our remit is, in the titular words of Thomas De Quincey's article in Blackwood's Magazine, in February, 1827, to consider the literary recording of 'Murder as one of the Fine Arts'. In that essay he sketched the history of murder, from Cain's slaying of Abel up to the eighteenth century, and subsequently added a 'Postscript' concerning the terrible Ratcliffe Highway Murders, of 1811, when a maul-wielding young seaman called John Williams, most horrendously slaughtered seven people (vide: The Maul and the Pear Tree. T.A. Critchley and P.D. James, 1971).

It is, however, an eighteenth-century chronicle of Treason, Murder, Piracy, Highway Robbery, Felony, Thieving, Bigamy, Buggery, Burglary, Rapes, and Riots, that must be regarded as the foundation volume of the literature of crime. Published by J. Cooke in 1774, it was The Newgate Calendar, its three volumes cannibalising the various pamphlets and earlier fugitive publications in that genre. Subsequent works, such as The Malefactor's Register of 1799, and The Criminal Recorder of 1804, in turn cannibalised the original Newgate Calendar.

There is, however, no single work which may simply be called the Newgate Calendar, for there is George Theodore Wilkinson's The Newgate Calendar Improved, of 1816, William Jackson's The New and Complete Newgate Calendar, or, Malefactors' Universal Register, and The Newgate Calendar, edited by Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin, in four volumes, published between 1824 and 1828. And in 1887, T Miles & Co. brought out, under the title The Chronicles of Crime; or, The New Newgale Calendar, two volumes, edited by Camden Pelham, with splendid illustrations by 'Phiz'. The most desirable modern edition is The Complete Newgate Calendar, privately printed for the Navarre Society in five volumes in 1926. …

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