“Thou shalt not kill,” commands the King James Bible— without, as opponents of capital punishment like to point out, riders or qualifiers. Curiously, this translation of an injunction in the ancient Hebrew Torah did not lead the list of Yahweh’s rules; it arrives after other warnings, such as no swearing and no bowing to the swarm of other gods out there. It is, however, blunt.
Murder is the most desperate act a human being can commit against another—which is why, in its dramatic fertility, it has been a fruitful trope in the arts from the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh to Attica Locke’s recent detective series about Texas Ranger Darren Mathews, from Cain’s murder of his brother Abel to the Hulu comedy Only Murders in the Building. Whether taxonomized narrowly or broadly, whether in the latest court case or prior to the ancient legal code attributed to the Babylonian king Hammurabi, murder is always with us.
The Oxford English Dictionary, a marginally less revered source than the Bible, defines “murder, n.” as “the most heinous kind of criminal homicide.” This definition includes the adjective criminal because, technically, homicide describes the killing of another human being in any circumstance, whether deliberately in murder or negligently in manslaughter—both varieties of unlawful killing. Even suicide is sometimes defined in statistics as self-inflicted murder. It is still homicide when one kills during war or a state-sponsored execution; but, however tragic it may be, it is by definition not unlawful when state-approved.
Otherwise Jack Ketch, the infamous executioner under Charles II who became an eponym for hangman, would be remembered as a murderer himself.
In court, murder is a charge, characterized by degrees of premeditation and malice. The adjective willful implies intent and also that it is possible to commit murder during loss of control over oneself. The often-contested charge of felony murder points out that if someone dies as a result of your criminal action, you are liable for murder whether or not you intended it; many nations and some US states have removed it from their books.
“Stranger danger” is a favorite theme of people who claim that society’s allegedly innocent citizens are better protected from its allegedly dangerous citizens by remaining in a kind of moral panic, a red alert of suspicion toward people they do not know. Of course, within reason we must be wary of strangers. For people of color, for women in general, and for those who visibly identify outside the traditional binary of sexual orientation, stranger danger is a daily possibility, especially in notoriously racist nations such as the United States. But people who work to address daily tragedies such as domestic violence and sexual assault point out that stranger-oriented paranoia ignores the sober reality that most victims are harmed by people they know—often by family members. And for centuries many people have had to remind themselves daily that they would find neither refuge nor justice from those whose job was to enforce the very laws that subjugated them.
Crime fiction is so popular nowadays that devotees of allegedly historical accounts must define their category as “true crime,” a curious term like nonfiction writer. True-crime podcasts tirelessly speculate over what motivates heinous crimes, and the best fictional detective series—on page or screen— exploit how investigative procedure takes us behind the scenes of tragedy. Everybody seems to find murder fascinating. Nowadays, without the murderers and victims who draw tourists to its Chamber of Horrors, the Madame Tussauds waxworks in London would be limited to a hoodied Mark Zuckerberg peering over a laptop and Kate Middleton clutching a purse.
We are drawn to the horrific with good reason. We understand that, in our soft mammalian bodies, evolved from predatory primates, we are at risk of accident and violence. We know loss and grief. Even hamsters exhibit self-preservation, but presumably they lack our foreknowledge that all creatures tread the edge of the abyss. One of the quirks of Homo sapiens, however, is that we get a thrill from the abyss. Perhaps its proximity fires up our primordial synapses. In a world of stationary bicycles and decaffeinated coffee, of streetlights banishing the ancient night, do we miss that shiver down the spine?
The shiver is not new. The Penguin Book of Murder Mysteries celebrates how the nineteenth century added a modern twist to the ancient theme of bloody murder. Gradually, the suspenseful race of pursuers hot on the trail of a culprit began to entwine toward the denouement with a parallel story of how they gathered and deciphered clues. This narrative updating wed venerable kinds of epic stories, such as quest and vengeance, to the sense of mystery formerly limited to supernatural narratives. The Gothic cobwebbery festooning many early crime stories—much of which now looks as silly to us as a haunted fairground in Scooby-Doo—met the fresh new idea of legal justice. Although there are occasional earlier examples of crime-solving, the murder mystery as we think of it nowadays centered upon a detective figure interested at least in the conservative notion of the restoration of “order,” and at best in the liberal ideal of justice. The genre could not have evolved before modern notions of a codified legal structure and organized police—ideally a commitment to evidence versus torture, clues versus accusation. In every society, of course, the evolving system has been structured to protect the dominant group, so corruption and bigotry polluted each system. But at least there was beginning to be a system.
The myriad approaches to murder mysteries keep us returning to this genre. For example, writers have expressed some curious notions about how guilt manifests itself. “Murder, though it hath no tongue,” murmurs Hamlet to himself, “will speak with most miraculous organ.” His father’s ghost claims he was murdered by his brother, Claudius, but Hamlet cautiously plans to confirm this posthumous accusation by setting a trap for Claudius: a play about a man who murders his brother that would prompt Claudius to confess his guilt. Edgar Allan Poe also thought that shock would jolt a confession, as he demonstrates in his story “Thou Art the Man,” and later Lieutenant Columbo tried it on TV. In one of the earlier stories herein (it would be a spoiler to tell you which), suspects are required to touch the victim’s corpse.
Granted, many detective stories use a corpse only as Alfred Hitchcock employed what he called a MacGuffin—as a plot device to get the story moving. We do not lament the token death that motivates the lighthearted antics of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. But other murder mysteries break your heart with the everyday tragedies of grief, the cancerous gnaw of regret and guilt growing ever more deadly, the ways that people try not to get involved, the passions and fears of ordinary people living their extraordinary lives with all the tired grandeur of Lear on the heath.
And then, amid the poignant aspects of well-played melodrama, the murder mystery performs that magic that gives detective stories their unique aesthetic pleasure. It makes you entertain many successive provisional conclusions, and then it presents you with one last flourish. Et voilà, it makes you restructure all your tentative ideas, which have been forming and re-forming throughout this performance, and replaces them with What Really Happened. For examples of this kind of narrative reversal, I recommend stories in this anthology such as James McLevy’s “The Dead Child’s Leg” and Anna Katharine Green’s “An Intangible Clue.” I ought to mention that McLevy’s tragic, gruesome tale will also break your heart. The emotional satisfaction of this routine may indeed be a restoration of the forces of order—a kind of narrative reassurance. Perhaps that explains why mystery novels were so popular during World War II among the crowds hiding in the Underground from Nazis blitzing London. The aesthetic thrill, however, is separate. It’s a magic show. The rabbit must emerge from a different hat than the one you are watching. A bit loony, this low art—artificial as a sonnet, simplistic as opera. Aristotle would classify most of it as mere spectacle. Yet at its best a murder mystery isn’t quite like any other kind of literature. The Penguin Book of Murder Mysteries is for connoisseurs of murder.
The February 1827 issue of Blackwood’s magazine included an outré essay (or story?) by Thomas De Quincey, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” De Quincey claimed to include a paper delivered in London at an organization he called the Society of Connoisseurs in Murder. “They profess to be curious in homicide, amateurs and dilettanti in the various modes of carnage, and, in short, Murder-Fanciers,” he wrote. “Every fresh atrocity of that class which the police annals of Europe bring up, they meet and criticize as they would a picture, statue, or other work of art.”
By police annals De Quincey meant also the flourishing popular press devoted to sensational crime—especially bloody murder. For example, in De Quincey’s time the Examiner, which was founded by essayist Leigh Hunt, featured a column entitled “Murders and Murderous Crimes.” In the 1820s forty thousand people gawked at the hanging of murderer John Thurtell. In the vein of this already well-established form of grisly entertainment, De Quincey’s narrator cites a number of real-life murders, applauding the artistry or decrying the lack thereof in their performance. He examines, for example, the killing of Mrs. Ruscombe and her maid in 1764, as well as the horrific Ratcliff Highway murders from 1811, whose victims included an entire family and their maid.
With the straight-faced tone employed by Jonathan Swift a century earlier in his A Modest Proposal that the children of the poor should be sold as food for the wealthy, De Quincey remarks casually, “People begin to see that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a purse, and a dark lane.” This described a common occurrence in an ill-lit London two years before the formation of an official police force, and not an unknown phenomenon nowadays. “Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature.” De Quincey was already known for his scandalous account of his own travails with laudanum, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, and this new performance did not redeem his reputation. His status as a clever stylist, however, was secure.
I think he would have enjoyed the artistry with which authors in The Penguin Book of Murder Mysteries crafted their atrocities and carnage—the light and shade of their atmosphere, the design and composition of their clues and pursuit. This anthology is something of a historical tour of the genre, in chronological order, but it is aimed at twenty-first century murder-fanciers, connoisseurs who want to read about more than two blockheads, one to kill and one to be killed.
In planning a cocktail party or an anthology, I select the invitees based upon the likelihood that some may be even more interesting in juxtaposition than in my previous individual encounters with them. Like any host, I devise my guest list based upon my own preferences. For this anthology, for example, I omit the Dr. Thorndyke stories because I find R. Austin Freeman’s numerous antisemitic portrayals offensive. I have been similarly arbitrary throughout. Thus some other usual suspects have not been invited to this party. You will not find here many of the celebrity detectives who make the rounds of every mystery-fan party like board members an executive director was afraid not to invite. No doubt Sherlock Holmes and Auguste Dupin kept checking their mailboxes for an invitation, but I left them off the list. The world does not need another reprint of “A Scandal in Bohemia” or “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
I have already edited a fat anthology that follows and demonstrates the genre’s origins and development (The Dead Witness), and smaller volumes that explored particular themes (The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime, The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime). When Elda Rotor, the publisher of Penguin Classics, and I talked about my doing a new anthology with them, we agreed that I ought to seek the different, the unjustly forgotten, as well as crime fiction by writers not associated with the genre. There is a special flavor to nineteenth century literature. It inspires in me an archaeologist’s thrill of unearthing the past. Or is it a time-traveler’s frisson of witnessing the roots of my own era? I also love the antique cadence of the language, which is a kind of music to me. Victorian writers have replaced musicians as my companions for long drives.
Surprises within these pages include Gerald Griffin’s “The Hand and Word,” a dark Irish murder story published fourteen years before Poe’s Dupin deduced the existence of a homicidal orangutan in the Rue Morgue—sixty years before young Sherlock Holmes peered through his magnifying glass at the word Rache scrawled on a wall in Lauriston Gardens. If you want to see the evolution of a genre during the nineteenth century encapsulated, contrast Griffin’s almost medieval Gothic story with the sly urbanity of Anna Katharine Green’s “An Intangible Clue,” published eighty-eight years later.
At this party you will mingle with the humane novelist Charles W. Chesnutt, who, with majority white ancestry, could have passed as white but chose instead to identify and write as Black and became one of the earliest prominent writers about Black culture in the United States. I brought out of the shadows former stars in the crime field, such as the Austrian novelist Auguste Groner, whose star faded in the United States after Germany’s role in World War I, and the prolific American Geraldine Bonner. Speaking of whom, half the guests of this anthology are female, including some writing about the rebellious early “lady detectives.” Some of these stories have never been reprinted before The Penguin Book of Murder Mysteries.
In literary as in larger history, the establishment of “firsts” is a question of definition as much as chronology. Scholars of crime fiction, for example, debate the honor of the first detective and first detective story, but doing so requires more than ferreting out publication dates. What constitutes a detective story? Does it require a professional detective of some sort—police or private—to qualify? Many earlier tales featured crime, violence, pursuit, revenge. At what point did we begin to write stories about eagle-eyed detectives? For example, the “steady-looking, sharp-eyed” Inspector Bucket bloodhounds successfully through the pages of Dickens’s 1852–1853 novel Bleak House, but it is not a detective story. Poe often gets credit for the first detective story because the snooping and theorizing of his smug dilettante Dupin form the center and point of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” We don’t witness the murders; Dupin re-creates them for us from clues.
One perennial question is, “Who was the first female detective?” Some commentators nominate a character named Ruth Trail, heroine (and also villain) of Edward Ellis’s penny dreadful Ruth the Betrayer; or, The Female Spy. Its fifty-two weekly installments began in 1862 and ended the following year; the sole complete copy in the British Library bears a stamped arrival date of February 1863. Thus we can assign Trail a precise point on the timeline. More than two decades before women actually held any employment in the police force, Trail works with the police as, according to one male colleague, “a female detective—a sort of spy we use in the hanky-panky way when a man would be too clumsy.”
But do we want her on this timeline? Rather than a detective story, Ruth the Betrayer is a serial saga that adds up to a long episodic novel about a criminal who happens to also be a crooked cop. For our purposes, this résumé handicaps Trail’s eligibility for the title of first female detective. Two more worthy nominees for the title appeared almost simultaneously, soon after Ellis’s book. One, known only as “Mrs. G.,” narrates Andrew Forrester, Jr.’s “The Judgement of Conscience” herein. Mrs. G. proves a worthy ancestor to Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawsky and Ann Cleeves’s Vera Stanhope. More of this fascinating background can be found in the introduction to “The Judgement of Conscience.”
Let us glance briefly at an example of the appeal of grisly horrors to members of the Society of Connoisseurs in Murder.
“Nancy is no more,” Charles Dickens wrote to his friend John Forster, in August 1838. Amid the inky pages of his evergrowing stack of manuscript, Dickens had just killed off one of the most sympathetic characters in Oliver Twist. This was the first work of fiction to be published under Dickens’s own name, rather than the pseudonym Boz, and the first to draw entirely from his own inspiration. Its sunny predecessor, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, had resulted from a confident young freelancer’s willingness to write a text to accompany a series of sporting illustrations. Posterity has judged that the writer’s contribution eclipsed that of the artist—whose name, once known in London but now merely a historical footnote, was Robert Seymour.
Dickens’s dark saga of Oliver, the parish (charity) boy who falls into London’s criminal underworld, could not have differed more from Pickwickian picnics and the wit of that quotable Cockney valet, Mr. Sam Weller. The orphaned Oliver’s misfortunes include falling under the tutelage of Fagin, who dominates a gang of urchins he has forced into thievery, including the now-famous one nicknamed the Artful Dodger. Eventually one adult in Fagin’s gang, a prostitute named Nancy, tries to help Oliver—after which her lover, Bill Sikes, murders her. It is a horrific scene. He strikes her twice in the face with his pistol and then bludgeons her with a club.
Three prolific decades later, in November 1868, Dickens was looking for a new sensation in his renowned public performances of his own work. Before a group of invited friends, he staged his first reading of this tragic scene from Oliver Twist. The attendees were gratifyingly shocked—aghast— thrilled. Some admonished him against reading such horror in public. “My dear Dickens,” warned one prim doctor, “if only one woman cries out when you murder the girl, there will be a contagion of hysteria all over this place.” Yet women seem to have survived this assault on their allegedly delicate sensibilities.
No riots were reported, nor even fainting, that now-extinct species of editorial.
Dickens got so caught up in acting out his own scene of Bill Sikes’s murder of Nancy that his performance was said to cause his pulse to hammer and his breathing to falter. Often he had to be helped from the stage afterward to rest on a sofa, unable to speak. Dickens edited and shortened the passages from his books that he chose to read in public. A surviving reading script for this staple of his later tours includes notes to himself: “Point. . . . Shudder Look Round with Terror.”
No doubt we are all civilized people here. We obey the law and wish each other well. Of course we do. And yet—here we are, preparing to enjoy stories about murder.
Although we don’t have to wear out our hearts performing such tales before audiences, most of us know the pounding pulse that accompanies suspenseful literature. It is one of life’s great quiet pleasures, disappearing into a book, losing yourself in the experiences of another. In lively, atmospheric stories such as those in the following pages, we identify with the protagonist, with the victim—at times even with the perpetrator. We get to play both hero and villain. Within the stories, where our out-of-body experience of literature takes us, we peer around for clues, look over our shoulders at sudden noise. For a moment we may lose track of where we are. Back in the allegedly real world, our corporeal bodies shudder. Like Dickens, we look round with terror.
Then, perhaps with a little anticipatory smile, we turn the page.