‘Decline of the English Murder’ is one of a number of famous essays by George Orwell which appeared in something of an annus mirabilis for him, 1946, just after the end of the Second World War. But ‘Decline of the English Murder’ is a particularly intriguing case because it sees Orwell turning from two of his usual subjects – literature and politics – in favour of discussion the types of murder cases that have gripped the English newspaper-reading public over the years.
You can read ‘Decline of the English Murder’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Orwell’s essay below.
‘Decline of the English Murder’: summary
Orwell begins by describing a typical Sunday afternoon in an English home, ‘preferably before the war’. Addressing his reader – whom he assumes will be a husband and father – he imagines that on a Sunday, his reader will want to open the Sunday newspaper, the News of the World, and read ‘about a murder’.
Orwell identifies the period from around 1850 to 1925 as a sort of golden age of English murders, and he mentions some of the famous cases from that period which have ‘stood the test of time’, including the cases of Jack the Ripper and Dr Crippen. Many of these cases inspired successful novels about them, and they have been of continual interest to readers and to people who write about such things.
Orwell then contrasts these cases with a recent wartime case: the so-called Cleft Chin Murder, which had recently been written up into a booklet by R. Alwyn Raymond. Many of the earlier murders Orwell mentioned involved poisoning and sex, and the majority of the murderers were middle-class. But there was another important aspect: the murderers’ ‘respectability’, and their attempts to attain this or to hold onto it. Their crimes had a clear motive, which often related to their social standing and reputation.
What’s more, the murders only came to light gradually, because the criminals had often covered their tracks carefully, and only careful and prolonged police investigation brought the guilty parties to light. Some of the details in the case prove the old line that truth is stranger than fiction: Orwell mentions Dr Crippen’s ‘flight across the Atlantic with his mistress dressed as a boy’ as an example of ‘episodes that no novelist would dare to make up’.
Orwell then constructs the ‘perfect’ murder from these real-life historic cases: the murderer should be ‘a little man of the professional class’ such as a dentist or lawyer, living a respectable life out in the suburbs. This man should ‘go astray’ by falling for his secretary or the wife of another man, and only commit his murders after ‘long and terrible wrestles with his conscience’.
But then Orwell turns from this ideal case – ideal for those Sunday-afternoon readers of salacious tabloid stories about the case, that is – to the ‘Cleft Chin Murder’, which involved an ex-soldier from America named Karl Hulten and an 18-year-old ex-waitress named Elizabeth Jones. Unlike Orwell’s ‘perfect’ murder, the ‘background was not domesticity, but the anonymous life of the dance halls and the false values of the American film’. The two murderers were casual acquaintances and appeared to carry out their crimes in a similarly casual manner, merely because they wished ‘to do something dangerous’.
Having outlined the details of the pair’s murders, Orwell concludes that their crimes took place against the backdrop of war, at a time when London was being bombed by German bomber planes, and they are not likely to remain famous cases in the annals of crime, unlike those ‘old domestic poisoning dramas’ which were the product of a ‘stable society’ before the Second World War (and, in many cases, before the First). Back then, Orwell asserts, ‘crimes as serious as murder’ had ‘strong emotions behind them’, and this detail is lacking from the recent sensational murder involving Jones and Hulten.
‘Decline of the English Murder’: analysis
‘Decline of the English Murder’ is part of a surprisingly long tradition in the annals of English essays: what we might call the ‘murder-as-art essay’. Two notable precursors to Orwell’s essay are Thomas de Quincey’s ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’ (1827) and Oscar Wilde’s 1889 essay ‘Pen, Pencil and Poison’ – the latter of which is an analysis of the ‘work’ of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, an artist, author, and (suspected) serial killer.
‘Decline of the English Murder’ is about how the recent Second World War (Orwell’s essay was published just one year after the end of the war) has ‘brutalizing effect’ on the psyches of Britons, causing them to lose their sense of mercy towards Jones, believing she should ‘hang’ for her crimes. But as the critic Peter Marks has argued, Orwell’s essay is less about the (temporary) war than the ‘Americanisation’ of murder in British society, whereby depth of motive is replaced by surface.
Here, readers might easily miss the clever irony at work in the title of Orwell’s essay. ‘Decline of the English Murder’ not in number of murders being committed but in the grandeur of such murders. The ‘art’ of murder, as Wilde would say, has declined, and it’s all America’s fault (or mostly). The word ‘English’ in Orwell’s title, then, requires some emphasis: the ‘English murder’ is in decline because it is losing its national identity, and becoming infected with the casual and cheap trappings of American crime (indeed, Orwell even mentions that Hulten falsely described himself as a Chicago gangster). As Orwell writes of the Cleft Chin Murder, ‘There is no depth of feeling in it.’
If this sounds like the sort of thing a critic or reviewer might say about a bad film, play, or novel, this is part of Orwell’s (indirect) point in ‘Decline of the English Murder’: that people consume tales of true crime in the Sunday newspapers in much the same way as they consume the latest Agatha Christie novel or melodrama at the theatre. Orwell’s essay slyly elides real-life murder with fictional murders in novels and on stage; it is notable that Orwell refers repeatedly to the arts when discussing both the old golden-age crimes and the recent Cleft Chin Murder. But whereas the former have been turned into novels and plays, the wartime murder had ‘the false values of the American film’.
Indeed, the way Orwell dismisses the recent ‘Cleft Chin Murder’, in terms that recall a literary critic lamenting that a contemporary writer’s work will not ‘last’, is surely deliberate: he turns the language of the book-reviewer or art-critic on the most shocking and brutal crime.