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.’
LRB 8 November 2012 | PDF Download