Artillery Row

Britain’s strange fascination with serial killers

As crime dramas take over as the nation’s favourite television genre, Nigel Jones asks why we enjoy watching dramatic reenactments of sadistic murders

When I last made a detailed perusal of the TV schedules – a while ago, admittedly – every channel seemed to broadcast a constant diet of cosy cookery programmes, interspersed with quiz shows and the odd piece of “property porn”. Now the modish TV fashion – actually more like an obsession – are killers, and the crueller and more perverse the better.

The British middle class has long enjoyed reading about and watching murders at a secure distance

In the (entirely typical) week that I write, one BBC drama series The Serpent has just concluded, chronicling the career of Charles Sobhraj, a serial killer who preyed on naive travellers along the Hippie Trail to Kathmandu in the 1970s. Another series, the ITV drama Des starring David Tennant, followed, probing the warped mind of Dennis Nilsen, the mild-mannered civil servant who picked up, murdered, and dismembered at least twelve vulnerable and homeless young men in the 1980s. Hard on the heels of that from the same channel came a real-life documentary on Nilsen: a boring individual apart from his penchant for mass murder.

I am slightly surprised then that some enterprising producer, had they known of Nilsen’s private hobby of homicide, didn’t combine cookery and a quiz featuring Des from Muswell Hill and his recipe for boiling human heads, along with answering questions on his special subject of necrophilia.

Nor is TV’s fascination with sadistic crime confined to real life and death. The schedules are also awash with fictional gore. Thus we have the cerebral Detective Morse investigating a serial killer on the loose in Oxford, now the city of screaming choirs; his rural counterpart Barnaby probing one of the regular rash of slaughters that disrupt the pastoral peace in Midsomer Murders; and Rufus Sewell as the Venetian sleuth Zen on the trail of murderers in Italy.

As The Sunday Times Critic’s Choice noted in introducing Bloodlands, yet another murder series, this one starring James Nesbitt and set in Belfast – a city not unaccustomed to real mass murder – “It seems crime has supplanted costume drama on BBC One’s Sunday evenings.”

So what lies behind this spate of bloodlust on our screens? I sought an answer from my daughter, currently reading criminology at university. She opined that as most middle-class people are unlikely to encounter a psychopathic killer in their humdrum everyday lives, they obtain a vicarious thrill in meeting them from the comfort of their armchairs and in the safety of their living rooms.

A biography of Cesare Borgia or Ivan the Terrible would always outsell a life of Marie Curie

It is certainly true that the British middle class has long enjoyed reading about and watching murders at a secure distance. Mass detective fiction in the inter-war years was dominated by genteel ladies such as the “Queens of Crime” Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. Their murders were generally antiseptic, carried out in clean upmarket locations such as country houses, and the detectives who (inevitably) successfully cracked the crimes, Hercule Poirot, Albert Campion and Lord Peter Wimsey, were akin to gentlemen completing The Times crossword in a London club.

Murders and solving them had thus become an intellectual exercise, and it was often intellectuals who enjoyed writing and reading about them. The great novelists of the nineteenth century – Dostoevsky, Dickens, Hardy and Zola, for example – made murder a central feature of their work. A serial sex killer called Moosbrugger is a central character in one of the twentieth century’s great novels, Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, and Musil’s countryman Ludwig Wittgenstein loved to chill with crime whodunits when he wasn’t writing Tractatus Logicus-Philosophicus.

As George Orwell noted in his 1946 essay Decline of the English Murder, the civilised, comfy murders – often poisonings – characteristic of its golden age had been displaced during the Second World War by far nastier crimes: more brutal, more violent, more random. Like many other processes in the era of mass industrialisation, the careful craftsman killer had been replaced by the crudity of the serial killer. Fiction and film went the same way: the hard-boiled pulp fiction of Micky Spillane and his myriad successors translated on to the blood bespattered silver screens of Sam Peckinpah and Quentin Tarantino.

Britain had its fair share of serial killers before the phenomenon was imported from the US. The progenitor of such crimes, Jack the Ripper in the 1880s, generated a whole crime culture dubbed “Ripperology” as authors, amateur sleuths and filmmakers competed to identify the killer who disembowelled at least five women in Whitechapel. The scores of suspects ranged from Eastern European immigrants to Queen Victoria’s doctor, as well as the artist Walter Sickert – a theory favoured by the American crime writer Patricia Cornwell.

Jack’s descendants included gruesome freaks like the recently deceased Peter Sutcliffe and the hideous Fred and Rose West; but also white collar killers such as the GPs John Bodkin Adams and Harold Shipman who bumped off hundreds of their patients for financial gain and/or their own sadistic satisfaction.

It seems undeniable that there is an enormous public appetite for such crimes to be repackaged as entertainment, for goodness, like happiness, “writes white”. A biography of Cesare Borgia or Ivan the Terrible would always outsell a life of St Francis of Assisi or Marie Curie.

But does this taste for the dark side indicate that under the right circumstances we could all become killers – that there is a streak of collective mass sadism in society that reveals the potential killer that lurks in us all? Or is our enjoyment of the crimes of others a harmless safety valve allowing us to say, “there but for the grace of God goes I?”

The enthusiastic participation of thousands of otherwise “ordinary people” in such genocides as the Holocaust, Armenia, and Rwanda should give us all pause for thought before we settle down to another re-run of Murder She Wrote or Silent Witness.

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