Quality of English murder sinks to a new low: horses


January 28, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

London -- George Orwell was right: The quality of English murders has truly gone downhill.

Still, one might expect the land that gave the world the first serial killer, Jack the Ripper, to eventually produce a mutation such as the "horse ripper."

The latest victim was found dead in her stable in placidly rural Hampshire on the weekend, a 10-year-old Irish hunter named Mountbatten. Her throat had been cut; other mutilations were reported.

Mountbatten was the fiend's first fatality, but certainly not the first victim. Nearly 30 other horses have been slashed or stabbed, and police are no closer to catching the culprit.

People in the rural parts are nervous. There is no way of knowing when or where the ripper might strike, or if his taste might turn to his own kind. Or her own kind.

Thoughts of murder are never far from the English mind. Understandably. No other country has elevated this grisly activity to the level of high entertainment, sometimes art.

Probably everybody who can read, in any language, has heard of Agatha Christie. Detective stories involving murder are a staple of British television. The morose and pedantic Inspector Morse, the dandyish and fastidious Hercule Poirot, the maddeningly labyrinthine plots of the Ruth Rendell mysteries confound the sharpest minds every week.

Any random survey of what passengers on the underground are reading as they travel to and from work will show a clear preference for murder mysteries.

And the stories themselves? The crimes are almost always premeditated; they have some evil sense to them. Solutions are exquisite exercises in deduction and intuition.

English murder mysteries are usually not saturated with the violence so much a part of the American variety. Mike Hammer never thrived in the land of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes secured his quarry with the seamless net of his mind; he didn't plug him with a .45.

The occasional bursts of physical violence Holmes was forced into were always embarrassingly clumsy, uncharacteristic of this being invented by Arthur Conan Doyle, a literary character many people throughout the world have believed was a living person.

And the same Holmesian tradition is carried on today, at least in books and on television. But in real life things continue to show a marked decline, murderwise.

Orwell noticed this as far back as 1946, when he wrote his famous essay, Decline of the English Murder.

"If one examines the murders which have given the greatest amount of pleasure to the British public, the murders whose story is known in its general outline to almost everyone and which have been made into novels and rehashed over and over again by the Sunday papers, one finds a fairly strong family resemblance running through the greater number of them."

Orwell was speaking about real murders, not made up ones. These English murders, he wrote, were almost always domestic, usually involving "a little man of the professional class -- a dentist or a solicitor, say-- living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs . . ."

They had context; the killer knew the victim intimately, was driven to his crime by a whole constellation of perfectly understandable human motivations, jealousy, greed, lust.

But murders took a bad turn when they lost this context. When people started killing people they didn't know, they lost the link, the key by which they were always unlocked.

For Orwell, the English murder had degenerated into a lethal randomness, kind of a lottery of death without rhyme or reason.

Things have not improved much over the past 45 years or so. On the contrary, in recent months a series of especially grisly murders -- stabbings, stranglings, hackings -- has occurred in Britain. They are frequently described as senseless, because there seems no evident reason for them, and it is assumed the perpetrators were strangers to their victims.

Thus, there is little opportunity for the deduction and detection of the traditional kind that a room full of suspects provides. There is only forensics: autopsies, prints, chemical tests, DNA, the antiseptic tools of the modern homicide detective.

Now it's horses. What next? Mr. Orwell might ask in disgust.

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