Jean Briggs – Writing Murder

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The following external characters of the body are laid down as indicative of hanging … lividity and swelling of the face, especially of the lips, which appear distorted; the eyelids are swollen and of a bluish colour, the eyes red, projecting forwards and sometimes partially forced out of the orbital cavity; the tongue enlarged, livid…

For a moment I look up from the pages of Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor’s Medical Jurisprudence, the book referred to by Dorothy L. Sayers as ‘the backdoors to death’. That’s us, the murder writers sneaking through those backdoors to rifle through the cases to find our strangler, or poisoner, or gun-toting bandit, or the hand with the subtle dagger. We want the evidence. What are the symptoms of arsenic poisoning? At what range was the gun fired? When did rigor set in? Professor Taylor has all the answers.

The sky is perfectly blue and cloudless – an innocent sky – and I wonder when I became the sort of person who could read these grisly details with perfect equanimity. When? When I turned to crime, I suppose. Always on my mind, murder.

I look back at the book. Oh, here’s something I might find very useful – the case in 1829 of a boy hanged after his death – murder most foul. The villain sought to disguise his handiwork as suicide. Apt word, handiwork – our murderer had strangled the lad first. Cunning, but not as clever as he thought for the impressions of fingermarks were found on the neck. Whether the murderer was caught, Professor Taylor does not say. It is not his purpose to unmask murderers. Mine is. Justice will be done.

For justice must be done. It is what the crime reader wants. However beastly the crime, however cunning, cold-blooded or sadistic the murderer , however terrifying the narrative , the reader must close the last page in the certain knowledge that the murderer has been caught. Justice done means the restoration of order in a disorderly world. The detective may be a flawed human being; he or she may drink too much, may be hopeless in personal relationships, even in professional ones, but, comfortingly, he or she is, in the end, a force for good. ‘So shines a good deed in a naughty world.’

Back to Professor Taylor: I make notes, quite dispassionately, taking in the unfamiliar, analytical vocabulary of death: ecchymosis, effused coagula, cadaveric lividity, extravasation of blood…

And I think of a younger self, the girl who was promptly sick when the biology mistress came into the lab, casually swinging her clear plastic bag of bulls’ eyes – real ones, intended for dissection. Yes, this is the person who felt faint at the sight of blood, trembled at hospital doors and avoided the doctor’s surgery as if it were plague-stricken.  A girl brought up with the utmost care as Lady Bracknell observes. Jane Austen was always my favourite writer.  Case hardened, I am.

I wonder if my fellow crime writers shudder at all at the blood, the open wounds, the livid marks on the neck, the contorted cadaver of the poison victim. I suspect that they, as I am, are more interested in the placing of the comma or the semi-colon, the length of the sentence, the exact word to describe the colour of the blood – dried or fresh.

Ruby, carmine, scarlet, crimson, vermilion – which to choose for the fresh sanguineous effusion? Well let’s not overdo it! But, if we don’t shudder, we do want our readers to shudder, to recoil, perhaps avert their horrified eyes from the body in the library, in the traveller’s trunk, in the car boot, or dirty ditch, from the severed hand, foot or head – with twenty trenched gashes. Twenty? Why twenty, Mr Shakespeare? Dramatic effect, dear reader. Well, if he can …

But, we want them to pity, too, the poor mangled corpse, to see it through the compassionate eyes of our detectives. So, I’ll take the Taylor’s cool prose describing the boy done to death and I’ll fill in the details of his short, unhappy life. I’ll emphasise his innocence and the terror of that moment when he felt the murderer’s hands on his neck and fought for his breath. Not a dry eye in the library.

Two things made me shudder in the writing of my first two novels. I recorded the slashed throat of my first victim without a tremor, but the description of the rats which haunted Dickens in the blacking factory at Hungerford Stairs and the scores of dog-fighting rats in the famous King’s Head in London’s Compton Street produced a distinct queasiness. And I had to turn away from Dickens’s description of the serpents at Regent’s Park Zoo. Even in the proofreading, I had to skip those.

Not wholly hardened then. A.A. Milne in a dedication to his father in his only detective novel, The Red House Mystery, wrote: ‘Like all really nice people, you have a weakness for detective stories, and feel that there are not enough of them.’ And the writers are all really nice people, I’m certain, despite their fascination for the grim details of murder. My friends and family trust me – they eat at my table, spoon sugar into their tea, scoff cakes with white icing, quaff wine and regret the bitter taste – it’s probably corked, they observe sympathetically. Maybe.

And, as for Jane Austen – well, death came to Pemberley.

Jean Briggs taught English for many years in schools in Cheshire, Hong Kong and Lancashire. She now lives in a cottage in Cumbria with her husband who is an artist.  The Murder of Patience Brooke is her first novel featuring Charles Dickens as a detective.

The idea of Dickens as a detective came about when she read Dickens’s articles about the London police in his periodical Household Words. Dickens was fascinated by police investigation and by murder, in particular – there are plenty of murderers in his writing, and Dickens is credited with the creation of the first literary detective in Inspector Bucket who solves the murder of Mr Tulkinghorn in Bleak House. The second in the series is Death at Hungerford Stairs to be published by The History Press in August 2015.


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