Categories for Crime

September 7, 2015

Forensics course!  

This is the MOOC from the University of Dundee with Val McDermid, Identifying the Dead

I’m sure it’s still not too late to sign up if you’re interested as the course only started this morning. The teaching is through a series of videos on an imaginary case study – which is like a very realistic episode of CSI with questions and worksheets. Now there’s an idea for a TV series…

The story opens in the same way as many crime novels – a woman is walking her dog in the rain…and the dog finds a bone. Is it a bone? Is it human?

There’s an interative 3D visualisation that allows us to inspect the find from different angles. I confess as I spun it virtually in the air I saw the scene from 2001 in my mind’s eye, and heard the music too. Monkey see, monkey do.

There are all kinds of other exercises too – from colouring in a diagram of a skeleton, to filling in Interpol Missing Persons forms. It’s not a light hearted course, given the many circumstances in which there may be a need to identify human remains. But it is fascinating.

It’s already clear that it’s a course that may trigger some ideas for writing, but I think it would be of more general interest too.


August 18, 2015

Private Investigations  

crime fiction

So what is this fixation I have with fictional private eyes? It’s been with me a long time.

Of the male detectives, I loved Roger Moore as The Saint, Simon Templar. I practised for hours in front of the mirror until I could raise a single eyebrow. My Dad let me use his library ticket to borrow the original Leslie Charteris novels, before I moved on to reading John D. McDonald and Chandler.

But even back then, I loved the female detectives more. I was transfixed by black and white films with Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple, and from there I read the books. I got hooked on Dorothy Sayer’s Harriet Vane – who was far too good for Lord Peter Wimsey – initially through the TV series with Harriet Walter.  Then I borrowed the novels from the library – always in the right order. Working my way through the crime fiction section I discovered the psychoanalyst sleuth Dame Adela Lestrange Bradley – an old witch of an investigator created by Gladys Mitchell. Later I devoured the Women’s Press feminist crime fiction list of the 80s and 90s – far too many of them to mention.  And they are all so different – the village busy body Miss Marple, through the sophisticated academic Kate Fansler, to the tough and streetwise working-class-made-good VI Warshawski.

Some years ago, PD James argued that middle class crime stories – often criticised as “snobbery with violence” – were more interesting because in deprived areas where crime is an everyday matter, there are fewer ‘interesting’ moral choices.  I love her novels – especially the stand alone Innocent Blood – but I think she was very far of the mark there.  The moral choices may be different but they are no less stark in the mean streets of VI Warshawski’s Chicago than in one of PD James’ locations – whether English country house, theological college or private plastic surgery clinic.

Issues of class have always been at the heart of crime novels. Miss Marple commented on the invisibility of ordinary working people – the maid, or the postman.  I recently re-read Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night and was fascinated by how relevant it still is today – asking questions about working women, motherhood, and marriage. Unusually the crime isn’t a murder, but is a series of poison pen letters aimed to discredit a women’s college at Oxford – and (spoiler here) – the culprit is a servant, who is avenging her husband who she feels was wronged by one of the academics.

Amanda Cross’s detective Kate Fansler is an academic – a Professor of English Literature – who is a feminist and frequently obstructed by male professors and irritated with her status as “the token woman.” Amanda Cross was the pseudonym of real life Columbia University Professor Carolyn Heilbrun – whose non fiction is also worth reading – I recommend her article about Gertrude in Hamlet, her biography of Gloria Steinem, and her book about old age. Later in her life she resigned from her post over the discrimination against woman in the University. So it’s interesting to see how she quite deliberately used her crime fiction to make a critique of academia many years before she made her more public protest.

Like male private eyes, the female of the species are outsiders.  They see the world from a different perspective – they’re not part of the establishment. Where in the original detective novels the point was to restore the world to order, the private detective has long questioned the basis of that order.  Moral ambiguity is part and parcel of all modern crime fiction – but it originated with the private eye novels.

I am contemplating the creation of my own private investigator, I even have a name for her, and something of a backstory. But I have a lot of thinking to do first – and another psychological thriller is beginning to take shape…

Who are your favourite fictional private eyes? Or do you prefer crime novels that focus on the police investigation?


Just after I finished writing this post, I found an interesting article about Agatha Christie and gender –“If Not Yourself, Who Would You Be?”

So these are some of the books on my reading list at the moment

The latest Sara Paretsky novel Brush Back – the 17th in the VI Warshawski series.

The first three Amanda Cross novels – starting with In The Final Analysis

Val McDermid’s non fiction book – A Suitable Job for a Woman, about real life female private investigators. She has a couple of her own fictional ones too – Lindsay Gordon and Kate Brannigan.

Perhaps I might add the PD James An Unsuitable Job for a Woman – featuring her female private investigator Cordelia Gray.

And the next of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone novels is due out at the end of August. Simply called X – I’d been wondering what it would be. X is for Xylophone would have been a challenge to plot.

Sources – PD James Snobbery and Violence in the Independent

Carolyn Heilbrun/Amanda Cross

Remembering Carolyn Heilbrun : Feminist Scholarship and Suicide



August 1, 2015

Jack the Ripper  

Jack the ripper

There’s seemingly never much of a gap between Ripper stories hitting the newspapers, but this week I’ve seen two – both interesting for very different reasons.

The first one is the new museum – you can take a look at the website here.   Of course the story of the Ripper holds a fascination for many of us who are interested in crime, and the museum itself is designed to appeal to that curiosity, as a journey through a series of themed rooms. There’s an imagined sitting room for the Ripper. How? Since we have no idea who he was, how on earth can we imagine his sitting room? As the website says, you decide – An artist, a doctor, an aristocrat? No mention of the possibility he was a journalist, which we will consider later…  The other rooms cover the second murder, a police station, a victim’s bedroom – and an adults only mortuary with shocking autopsy photographs.

What is fascinating about this is how much it is a constructed fiction – but no doubt it will attract many ghouls, including crime writers with an interest in the darker side of human nature. Ahem.

What is really troubling though, is that this was supposed to be a museum devoted to the women of the East End and the suffragettes. This is how it was described on the planning application that was approved last year.  Instead of that, it’s been transformed into a museum which focuses on someone who killed women of the East End.

The justification for this change? “It is absolutely not celebrating the crimes of Jack the Ripper but looking at why and how the women got in that situation in the first place.”  Victim blaming words calculated to irritate even the least radical feminist. He probably meant only that it was intended as a social history exhibit. Just as he probably meant to say he was planning to open a Jack the Ripper museum when he accidentally described it as a women’s history resource.

So who is the man behind the ultimate bait and switch?

Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe. Former diversity chief of Google.

(I can’t decide whether to laugh or cry.)

The other story is from the Telegraph, and claims that the mystery of who Jack the Ripper is has finally been solved. There is, of course, a book associated with this theory, although it comes too late for the opening of the Ripper museum, and potentially makes it obsolete already.

How many theories are there already? Too many to mention, although Wikipedia makes a valiant effort.

The Duke of Clarence is frequently mentioned as a suspect – the first one I read about in one of Colin Wilson’s books. It’s always fascinating to look back and see where one has picked up some very dodgy ideas…

One of my favourites is that expounded by Patricia Cornell, the writer of many crime novels featuring Kay Scarpetta, a forensic scientist who has many run ins with fictional serial killers.  Her case against Walter Sickert, the artist.  She wrote a book – perhaps erroneously described by Wikipedia as non-fiction – Portrait of a Killer, which has since been rather thoroughly debunked.

Another recent suspect fingered by the Telegraph, if I recall correctly, was Aaron Kosminski – a Polish Jew who had spent time in a lunatic asylum and may – or may not – have been suspected at the time. The dodgy evidence in that case was DNA on a shawl that was supposed to belong to one of the victims – but there were very many reasons why the evidence was not reliable.

So there are a couple of interesting features about this new suspect, although as far as I can tell, nothing that can possibly provide anything like proof.

The first is that apparently the Ministry of Justice is considering granting an exhumation order for Mary Jean Kelly – who was the last known victim of the Ripper.  The writer, Dr Wynne Weston-Davies, believes that she is his great aunt, and was killed by her ex husband, as revenge for her leaving him to return to her life of prostitution. The other victims were killed as cover, because Francis Craig was a reporter with detailed knowledge of police methods. He was also a plagiarist – which might be evidence of a sort. I was reminded of the Thomas De Quincy quotation – “If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.”

(Yes, I guess writing a post about Jack the Ripper IS procrastination. No, I haven’t killed anyone recently. Honest.)

The Telegraph story adds this to the small pile of clues –

“Followers of the case have long puzzled over why a series of infamous letters which originated the “Jack the Ripper” nickname were sent to the Central News press agency at the Old Bailey rather than a national newspaper, which would have been the most obvious destination to an ordinary member of the public.

Dr Weston-Davies suggests Craig was indeed the author of these “Dear Boss” letters and sending them to a news agency would have been a straightforward choice for him.

As a journalist who sometimes syndicated his own work, Craig knew it was the best way to have their contents sent to every newspaper in the land, further deepening his camouflage as the killer.”

That certainly reads like a clue that might belong
in an episode of Ripper Street.  Still, I have my reservations. I’m not sure how proving her identity would be sufficent to show her ex husband was the killer, even with the addition of a good story stringing together a few pieces of circumstantial evidence.

Still, it could add some substance to the theme of Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe’s museum. How do women get into that situation in the first place?  Work as a prostitute, marry a man, leave a man…

If only that story really did belong in a museum.


Sources –

Guardian article – Museum billed as celebration of London women opens as Jack the Ripper exhibit

Museum website – About page

Telegraph article – Jack the Ripper identity : mystery ‘solved’ in new book