When violence smashes into an orderly life

May 31, 2011
Michael Bywater

A superb account of Britain’s first railway murder

A bank holiday weekend, a new ITV drama series and guess what? It's a cop show. Scott & Bailey. It's about murder. Somebody gets killed and the cops find out who killed them. That's what television drama is about now. Yes, there are doctor stories too, but they're a sub-set of cops. The body is attacked (cancer, virus, speeding car). The doctors detect and, hopefully, punish the attacker. Body-coppers, doctors are, in drama today.

Perhaps it's to do with our anxiety, not only about the world we live in, but about how we should be. We laugh quietly at those fictitious Victorians with their pomp and certainty, but, as Mr Briggs' Hat, Kate Colquhoun's superb 'Sensational Account of Britain's First Railway Murder' shows us, they felt themselves to be living in as unstable a world as we do now.

Mr Briggs was a 71-year-old bank clerk who was battered to death in the locked first class compartment of his train home to Hackney. Nice summer Saturday, July 1864. Innocent lunch with a niece. Then out of a clear blue sky, horror. Blood on the seats. Blood on the door-handle and the floor; bone-shards and brain-splatter on the walls and windows.

No Briggs, only a hat which wasn't Mr Briggs's silk topper, but a far more oikish, shifty-looking felt Homburg, left behind. Assumption: murderer does for Briggs - in First Class! - chucks body onto tracks, picks up wrong hat in frenzy to escape, legs it across the line and into the undergrowth.

Detection ensues. Inspector Tanner of the Metropolitan Police. A fairly new trade: previously, the rozzers had just been about a looming presence to deter, and the fingering of collars caught red-handed (red with what? Exactly.) But now things had changed. Clues were assembled, timelines drawn up, people interviewed, hackney cabs jumped into and out of. Finger of suspicion pointed. Foreigner in the frame. Flight abroad by ship, pursuit by faster ship, foreigner - German - nabbed, brought back, tried, publicly hanged, did he do it?

All the elements of the murder story were here in place, in real life, for the more than 150 years of sensationalist fiction which has followed. It's always the same scenario: violence smashes at bloodstained random into an orderly life. The world descends into chaos. The detectives restore order. We no longer believe in redemption. The best we can hope for is retribution and keeping the lid on.

It began in real life, too, with Inspector Field who joined the Metropolitan Police detective division in 1846. Field captured the public imagination. Charles Dickens modeled Inspector Bucket on him, in Bleak House. A few years later, Wilkie Collins wrote, first, Woman in White, then The Moonstone.  'Sensation fiction' as the intelligentsia rather sneeringly called it, seized the market, enthusiastically promoted by station booksellers W H Smith. From the locked-compartment truth of Mr Briggs, readers moved through tales of murder crashing into apparently well-ordered lives to the locked room mysteries of Sherlock Holmes - himself modeled on Inspector Bucket.

There's an eerie symmetry there. The railway traveller comfortably ensconced in his button-backed, deeply-upholstered railway seat reading of people slain without mercy in their button-backed, deeply-upholstered middle-class lives.  The world changing all about them: railways, Darwinism, vast industrial enterprises, cities expanding like ground-elder, the old certainties under attack. Sensation fiction - cop stories, really - reflected the fears they fed upon, and which, in turn, they fed.

Raymond Chandler wrote, of crime stories, "...down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid." It's an impossible ideal, of course; as impossible as Scotland Yard giving free rein to all those amateur Holmeses and Wimseys and Albert Campions and Saints and Toffs.

And it's an ideal we can't quite hope for any more. Our cops are both tarnished and afraid, and we wouldn't believe in them otherwise. But Kate Colquhoun's Inspector Tanner shows us a man closer to Chandler's ideal than Scott (married, cynical, decent) or Bailey (vengeful, romantically gullible, a sloven and boozer) or any of our other TV cops.

Perhaps it's because we're no longer sure what it is to be untarnished or unafraid. Perhaps it's because the world no longer stays still even for a moment, leaving us tottering to catch our moral balance. To see what's right, we need to see first what's wrong, and maybe murder is the only thing we can all agree on.

Mr Briggs' Hat is immaculately researched, beautifully and modestly written. For all that it's real, it's a perfect murder mystery. But it also opens a window on the point in the history of storytelling when stories became about murder, cops, and catastrophe erupting into comfortable lives.

Mr Briggs' Hat by KATE COLQUHOUN, Sphere. ISBN 978-1847443694

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