This is the fourth and final post of this year’s May Murder Month. You can read posts one, two and three elsewhere on the blog.
Most contemporary readers will get their knowledge about interwar murder stories from the realms of fiction – Hercule Poirot gathering together suspects for a drawing room reveal (a device which Agatha Christie actually only used sparingly) or a hard-boiled police officer picking up on a seemingly minute clue that unravels the whole case. Once the murderer is identified, interwar fiction is either silent about what happens next, or the perpetrator is given the opportunity to take the ‘honourable way out’ by committing suicide.
In reality, of course, investigations were conducted by police inspectors. Unlike in modern criminal cases, there was no Crown Prosecution Service in interwar England. Instead, the police both conducted the investigation and prepared the documentation for the criminal trial. The Director of Public Prosecutions was ultimately responsible for bringing the case to trial in the interest of the people. England then, as now, had a two-tier criminal justice system. The magistrate courts were convened locally and dealt with most of the day-to-day criminal offences. Crown courts were reserved for jury trials, which included murder charges.
Before a case could be referred to the crown court, a prima facie case had to be established in the magistrate court that a crime had been committed and it was of a magnitude appropriate to be considered in the crown court. Interwar murder trials were therefore effectively heard twice: once in the magistrate court and then again in the crown court, where the sentencing would take place. It was generally the latter proceedings that drew the attention of the national press. In murder cases, the coroner’s inquest ran in tandem to the magistrate court proceedings. In the interwar period, coroner courts sat with their own juries, who were tasked with determining whether death had occurred naturally, through suicide, accident, or murder. Usually, if foul play was suspected but the police investigation was ongoing, the coroner would suspend the inquest to give the police more time to complete their investigations.
The reading public, then, were experiencing criminal narratives in two different ways. When reading newspapers, the reports mostly focused on the criminal trial, with its rhythm of prosecution, defence, cross-examination, witness statements, a possible statement by the accused, and the judge’s summing up, all cumulating to the jury’s verdict. In crime fiction, the narrative focused on the investigation, with witness statements noted as the investigation developed. Particularly in stories where the protagonist is an amateur sleuth as opposed to a police officer, the formal police and court procedures can be completely outside the scope of the narrative. As crime historian Victoria Stewart has noted: ‘Detective novels tend not to recount the trial of the individual whom the investigator identifies as the guilty party because the watertightness of the investigation itself acts as a substitute for the depiction of the judicial process. An account of the trial would simply reiterate the findings of the investigation that has formed the body of the narrative.’
Other scholars have noted that trial reporting reveals contemporary attitudes to potentially contentious topics such as changing attitudes to gender identity and sexuality. Newspaper historians have also argued that the increased popularity of crime fiction changed crime reporting, with journalists paying more attention to ‘human interest detail’ of the story as opposed to the judicial process. This, in turn, potentially obscured the public’s awareness of legal procedures. Additionally, journalists on occasion played a very active role in gathering evidence that led towards a conviction, for example in the case of Buck Ruxton who murdered his wife and a servant. Conversely, crime fiction novels which had a police inspector as their protagonist, such as the Inspector French novels by Freeman Wills Croft, potentially educated their readership about police procedures in more detail than newspaper reports did.
Whether fictional or factual, murder stories fascinated interwar audiences and allowed them to explore the limits of what was considered acceptable or transgressive behaviour; and how this changed over the course of the two decades. Newspapers and crime novels presented readers with two different lenses through which to consider the criminal justice process, from investigation to trial.
 Lord Peter Wimsey’s increasing mental distress at sending murderers to the gallows, which comes to a head at the end of the final Wimsey novel Busman’s Honeymoon, is a notable exception.
 Victoria Stewart, Crime Writing in Interwar Britain (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2017), p. 11
 Lucy Bland, Modern Women on Trial: sexual transgressions on the age of the flapper (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), p. 2
 Judith Rowbotham; Kim Stevenson; Samantha Pegg, Crime News in Modern Britain (London: Palgrave, 2013), p. 140
 Shani D’Cruze, ‘Intimacy, Professionalism and Domestic Homicide in Interwar Britain: the case of Buck Ruxton’, Women’s History Review, vol. 16, no. 5 (2007), 701-722