As this is posted, it’s 133 years since the body of Mary Ann Nichols was found in Whitechapel, London. Hers was the first of the so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders, and it became a media and public sensation. Even today, there are ‘Jack the Ripper’ tours, many books on the topic, and plenty of websites and groups devoted to these killings. Cases like that capture the public’s attention, and almost always result in a lot of news coverage and more. That scrutiny can complicate a case, as it often makes the public more anxious for the solution of a case that the police can’t solve quickly. But it’s hard to deny that cases like the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders get people talking.
There are plenty of cases like that in crime fiction, too, and it’s always interesting to see how the author handles the intense scrutiny and sensation that go with them. For instance, Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger concerns a case that’s very similar to the Whitechapel murders. Several young women have been killed by a man calling himself the Avenger, and the police haven’t managed to find out who’s responsible. Against this background of public fear and lurid interest in the case, Ellen and Robert Bunting have reluctantly decided to open their home to lodgers. Ellen in particular is choosy about who will live in her home, so it takes some time to find a desirable tenant. But one day, a man calling himself Mr. Sleuth comes to ask about the room. He has a ‘gentlemanly’ bearing, and the means to pay well, so the Buntings agree to rent the room to him. At first, all’s well, although Mr. Sleuth is a bit unusual. But slowly and gradually, the Buntings begin to wonder whether Mr. Sleuth might actually be the Avenger. Part of what builds the tension in this story is the atmosphere of fear. People wonder who the next victim will be and talk of the murders dominates a lot of conversations.
In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp and the police to solve a series of murders. The only things the murders have in common is that Poirot receives a cryptic warning note before each one, and that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. The public and press don’t pay much attention to the first murder; the victim is an elderly woman who kept a newsstand. But after the second murder, this time of a pretty young woman, there’s a lot of attention. And when the third victim, a wealthy older man, is discovered, the case has become a sensation. It’s not an easy case to solve, and the fact that it’s become a sensation only makes it more challenging.
Wendy James’ The Lost Girls begins in 1978, when fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan goes missing during a visit to her aunt and uncle. She’s later found dead, with a scarf wrapped around her head. At first, her cousin, Mick, and his friends come in for a lot of scrutiny, since they were the last to see her. But then, a few months later, another young girl, Kelly McIvor, is found murdered, also with a scarf around her head. Now, the case starts to get a lot of public and media attention, and the police look for a person the press has dubbed ‘the Sydney Stalker.’ The killer is never found, though, and life moves on. Then, years later, filmmaker Erin Fury is doing a documentary on the families of murder victims, and how they’ve managed since the deaths of their loved ones. Angela’s family reluctantly agrees to be interviewed for the film, and, little by little, we learn what really happened to Angela. Among other things, the novel explores the impact of intense media and press scrutiny on families.
In Liam McIlvanney’s The Quaker, Detective Inspector (DI) Duncan McCormack is seconded to the Glasgow police to work on a baffling case. A killer dubbed ‘the Quaker’ has claimed his third victim. All of the victims have been women who attended the same nightclub, but even that information hasn’t helped much, and the press and public are calling out for a quick solution. That scrutiny is very hard on the investigators, who are not sitting around idly. It’s a very tense time, as people are afraid the Quaker will strike again, and the police are at exhausted and spread thin, as the saying goes. One of the things this novel shows is the impact of this sort of sensation on the relationship between the police and the public. Another is the impact of the strain on the relations among the police officers, especially their resentment of an ‘outsider’ like McCormack.
There’s also Catherine Ryan Howard’s The Nothing Man. As a child, Eve Black was the only survivor of an attack on her family by a killer dubbed the Nothing Man. The name comes from the fact that the murderer left no evidence, and no-one remembers anything about him. The Nothing Man killed other victims, too, but was never caught. Now, an adult Eve has written about her experiences in a book called The Nothing Man. Her hope is that the book will help her find the killer. It’s become a bestseller, and she’s much in demand for signings, appearances, and so on. When Jim Doyle, who works as a supermarket security guard, sees the book advertised, he is determined to read it. But it’s not just because the case is sensational. The fact is, Doyle is the Nothing Man, and he is determined to stop Eve before she finds out who he is. So, he finds out she’s going to be appearing at a local bookshop, and starts to make his plans…One of the interesting things about this novel is that it’s a ‘story within a story.’ As we read about Eve Black and Jim Doyle, we also read the book Eve wrote. It’s an interesting sort of dual story, and it shows the impact of sensational cases.
And some cases are like that. They get a lot of public and media attention, and it’s even more common now in the Digital Age. Which fictional ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s No Man’s Land.
10 thoughts on “Now We’re Going to Get the Whole Story*”
It’s amazing how the media can have such a huge impact on cases in real life. You only have to look at the Madeleine McCann case and how we all have our own opinions about what happened and that was almost twenty years ago. It’s the fear that it could happen to us that makes something really sensational.
You know, Rachel, I think you have a really well-taken point. We fear that something awful could happen to us, so we can’t turn our eyes away from those lurid stories. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it does make sense. And you’re right about the media’s impact on major cases like the McCann case. On our side of the pond, there was the sensational murder of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey back in 1996. The case was never really solved satisfactorily, although there are lots of theories. And people still talk about it. At the time, it was all that was on the news.
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Ah, I love the ABC Murders – one of my favourite Christies!
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It’s such a well-done story, isn’t it, KBR? And it’s funny; Christie isn’t generally best-known for her characters, but I think there are some very solid ones in this story.
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It sometimes seems there is, in the US, so much gun violence, and so much emphasis put on the racial aspects of crime, that the media almost gets a blasé “ho him, another person killed” attitude. Plus, with the news cycles so full of ongoing big stories like hurricanes, Covid, Afghanistan, mask mandates and political wrangling that a killing becomes a page 4 event.
So, the “get the full story”, and public pressure to solve become much more a local thing.
That’s a really interesting point, Rick! National and world news media have so many things to cover that very few murder cases really make the news at that level. There are a few, but not many. On the other hand, regional and local news media do cover such cases more thoroughly, and it’s there that you see how certain cases can become sensational.
Margot: I enjoyed reading the post. It set me to thinking about Mortmain Hall by Martin Edwards. In the book are characters involved in high profile murders who were acquitted or cleared of the killings. Their lives were never returned to normal. At the same time Martin draws upon real life cases for inspiration with enough similarities they can be recognized. Several of those cases were media sensations. It is a gifted author who can combine the real and the imagined in a book.
It is, indeed, Bill, and I’m glad you mentioned Mortmain Hall. Edwards really is skilled as a writer. And it’s interesting, too, that, in real life and in fiction, lives are always changed after one’s involved in a high-profile case. Just the fact of being involved is a huge change in life, and whatever counts as ‘normal’ changes, too.
I enjoyed James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, which is kind of a factional re-telling of the Elizabeth Short case back in 1947. I think I might need to add The ABC Murders to my list of Christie’s to get to.
The Black Dahlia is a good ‘un, Col – I’m glad you enjoyed it. I thought the TV adaptation was done well, too. And I hope you’ll like The ABC Murders. There’s an interesting cast of characters in that one.