Joanne Klein

The Murder Mysteries’ View of British History

Dorothy L. Sayers fictional detective Lord Peter Wimsey once remarked, “In detective stories, virtue is always triumphant. They’re the purest literature we have.” (Strong Poison) British history as portrayed in British mysteries tends to create a rather purified vision of Great Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This idealized picture can be fruitful in showing changing British values. The detective evolved from the scientific, super-human Sherlock Holmes, to the perceptive, perpetually knitting Miss Marple, to the introspective, music connoisseur, Inspector Morse. Police evolved from bumbling incompetents, to helpful allies, to brilliant detectives. Yet a darker side of Britain also emerges from the murder mystery. Mysteries from the 1800s to the present portray a society divided by class prejudices and racism. G.K. Chesterton’s Man who Knew Too Much, for example, delivered an anti-Semitic diatribe, and even Agatha Christie included the occasional anti-Semitic aside. This lecture uses the murder mystery as a mirror of British society, exploring both the best and the worst of what British history has to offer.