This was supposed to be a sort of review and reprise of George Orwell’s “The Decline Of The English Murder,” only my point of view is very different to his. Which makes his essays the more appealing to me. Add Orwell’s beautiful and evocative writing and you have a blissful read.
Not that murders are blissful, but that’s the point of murders – and the point of Orwell looking at their decline. Orwell’s books were written to be read by those who enjoy reading, those who read the story as much for the writing as the story itself. But that is what makes literature; if it’s only a story thinly interwoven by lumpy descriptions, it’s pulp fiction.
In modern literature – put better, modern story telling – murders are now an essential ingredient. In reading copious volumes of varying kinds of books from the witless series about Inspector Born (only to be dumped half way through out of sheer boredom) to the clearly written and engaging history, ‘Dirty Old London’ by Lee Jackson. In amongst this stack – and it is a stack – are a few books by Henning Mankell. It’s not that he’s a bad writer like the poor person who wrote about Inspector Born (who should hang her head in shame) it’s that Mankell needs to keep his readers awake.
Which is the problem, really: in our day and age, if the writer doesn’t crash together the literary equivalent of a pair of dustbin lids every ten pages or so, the reader will simply give up the unequal struggle and doze off. Murders are the easiest – nay, the cheapest – way of boxing the reader about the ears with words. The imagination otherwise as excitable as a garden gate is given a stern lash with a few chosen words about a life that has unexpectedly come to an end.
I do know why people fear death so much, and it is directly related to their inability to imagine. A life spent in a factory isn’t the kind of life that needs an imagination any more than a beast in the field does: the difference is that a human can still imagine, even if it’s a strain when they do. The beast in the field has no imagination and has no comprehension of the future. As a result it can be carted away the next day and up to the point where it smells the blood, it is none the wiser as to what is going on. The human, for all their shortcomings, is aware of their own mortality. Unless they’ve given up the ghost prematurely in the form of dementia.
The real problem here is that we are mortal, and no matter how much we try to avoid it, we will die. Now to be frank, I don’t mind if I do die; but I’d rather it not be painful – but then, I do enjoy the morning sunlight and I do enjoy camping. So, death, hold off for a bit. Pretty please? Only seen from the other side, in a world where most people are aware of their being awake but unaware that it might suddenly all come to an end, death is something that happens to other people. The youngsters who charge around on 50cc motorbikes obviously think this way: speed is everything and the consequences of meeting a tree at even 50km/h can put them in hospital. It can, if circumstances are untoward, put them in their coffin. 50km/h (30mph) is quite fast enough for the unready to have a very nasty surprise.
In the Mankell stories, the deaths he writes about have always happened to someone else. I mean, if you are reading the story, it stands to reason that they’re dead and not you. That means the reader is safe from any of the nastiness that might inhabit the fictional world of the devious Swedish author.
The problem at hand is that it can’t be too staid. Take too long and the reader will have drifted off to sleep; do it too quickly and the reader is left wondering who got himself killed. Not that it matters, it’s in a book, innit? These are readers who cannot engage: they are not able to sense the threads woven between the words that evoke certain feelings. All they can do is read the words in the sentence, and if those are not active words, nothing is happening. Thus, it is necessary that every so often, someone needs to be topped.
Just to remind the reader that it didn’t happen to them. It’s like the British saying the Greeks have a debt problem… the British debt problem is, in many ways, a far more serious problem than the Greek one. The problem is you can’t go around reminding the British about it, because their government haven’t a clue what to do save borrow more money, and if the British realized the level of cluelessness they would be sitting on something unpleasantly squidgy. The real reason why the newspapers in Britain need to tell their readers about Greece is that the British reader is unable to pay his own debts… It’s the fiscal equivalent of realizing someone’s standing in the same room as you, only he’s got a meat cleaver and intends that your hair has a different parting. It’s not what newspapers are there to do: it happens, but never to the reader in the safety of his armchair or the pub.
The murder is the ultimate in wake up calls that wakes nobody up. The reader remains blissfully unaware of the realities of murders and the writers sell books that include them out of necessity. My own book has four judicial hangings that occur off stage, a suicide and three murders (yes, I’m in on the game!) The suicide is a straightforward case of the bored male; there’s enough in the papers about the Conservative MP hanging from the lamp cord for you to know what happened there. The murders are a different matter. The first one is a murder that to this day hasn’t been solved; some say it was a man called Tumbelty most agree it was Jack the Ripper. For all it happening in 1891, it is still in the official canon of Ripper murders; two years after the six that shook the nation to its core and scared the East Enders witless. The last two murders in my book are a different matter and it is only later on that the reader realizes that they happened at all. By which time the impact will hit the harder.
Or will my readers have gone to sleep? Or will they have stopped reading because it really has become too close to the bone?
A novel isn’t the reality of the Jack the Ripper scare of the spring of 1893 that really was too close for comfort. The Londoners really thought he might be waiting around the next corner, and acted accordingly. Having someone murdered in your front room is fine because it only feels real enough to keep you awake, and blissfully unaware of the man standing behind you with a kitchen knife…