Real crime versus crime fiction

render_imageI’m currently reading my way through a book called A Companion to Early Twentieth Century Britain. It’s part of my research for my novel series. I’m always trying to immerse myself in the history and culture of the early twentieth century and this seemed like a useful volume. I’m reading it on Kindle, so I had no sense of how long the book is. Until I realised that it took a lot of Kindle pages to nudge up the percentage read number in the bottom right of the screen. A quick look at the book’s paper edition on Amazon confirmed that it comes in at over 600 pages. Perhaps it’s as well that I was reading it on Kindle.

Edited by Chris Wrigley, it’s a wide-ranging book by an impressive number of authors, all of them distinguished academics. Each author contributes a different themed chapter, for instance on the Conservative Party, Foreign Policy, The Empire, The City of London, Leisure, Religion and Culture. I can’t say that all the chapters have been on equal interest to me and I confess to having skipped one or two. The period I’m particularly interested in, for my novels, is the years before the First World War. The book covers that but it also goes on up to the start of the Second World War. I’m a bit of a completist (I will go back to fill in the skipped chapters, I promise) so I find it necessary to carry on reading the various historical surveys beyond the period I’m immediately interested in. There’s not really any such thing as an isolated period of history, sealed off from what came before and what will come after.

A couple of days ago I read the chapter titled Crime, Police and Penal Policy by Clive Emsley, Professor of History at the Open University. As a crime writer, this is naturally of particular interest to me. The opening to Professor Emsley’s chapter paints an interesting contrast between the reality of crime and policing during this period and the myths represented in fiction of the time. It amused me a lot, so I thought it was worth sharing it with you:

“In 1931 the Buckinghamshire village of Brill had a population of 869, and the Census suggests that this was declining. Nevertheless, Brill remained the centre of a county petty sessions division covering fifteen other parishes with a total population of 4,803, and it had its own police station. The Occurrence Book of that police station lists only eight offences for the year 1931: one instance of wilful damage and seven others listed initially as theft. Two of the latter remained undetected, but no other occurrence resulted in a prosecution. The victim of the wilful damage, a local gentleman, declined to prosecute the two boys, aged nine and ten, and two girls, aged six and four, who had broken his windows. In the detected instances of theft, one woman refused to prosecute the domestic servant who had taken clothing and bedlinen, a father would not prosecute his eleven-year-old daughter for taking a £1 note, and an uncle would not prosecute his nephew for taking three £1 notes. A spare wheel, reported stolen from a car, appeared rather to have fallen off in the road. Nineteen sheep reported stolen by their owner had, in fact, been properly delivered to his slaughterhouse by two of his labourers.

“Brill cannot be taken as typical of England and Wales in the first third of the twentieth century, though its rural setting is reminiscent of that portrayed by many of the authors of popular detective fiction during the period. Nor is 1931 a typical year in the Occurrence Book of Brill police station. Usually there were rather more offences listed, including the occasional case of violent sexual assault. But if the setting resembles Agatha Christie’s St Mary Mead, the murder rate was quite different. The Occurrence Book lists no murders and only one instance when murder was attempted; this was in 1904, when a seventy-year-old man tried to kill his equally aged wife. Christie’s Miss Marple would have been bored to death in Brill, for here the predominant offence was petty theft and the usual offenders were juveniles and young people; to this extent the pattern of crime in Brill does appear similar to that of the rest of the country.”

Clive Emsley, Crime, Police and Penal Policy, from A Companion to Early Twentieth Century Britain, Ed Chris Wrigley, Published by Wiley-Blackwell

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