When murder is monstrous and motiveless

Article published on March 9, 2012.

What makes a crime story work? A crime, obviously. A perpetrator. A hunt for the perpetrator. And, in most cases, a motive. More often than not, from Christie through to Rankin, it’s the motive which unlocks the puzzle.

But what if, on first sight at least, a crime is motiveless? What if it’s just monstrous?

My first book, The English Monster, is at least initially based on the Ratcliffe Highway murders. A quick recap for those who don’t know what I’m talking about: in December 1811, two families were slaughtered in their homes in the most brutal fashion, their heads caved in and their throats slashed. Even a sleeping baby wasn’t spared; his throat was cut down to the bone.

The crimes were a national sensation, causing uproar across the land, and leading ultimately to the reorganisation of London policing which saw the birth of the Metropolitan Police. The supposed perpetrator of the crimes, John Williams, was found dead in his cell at Coldbath Fields Prison (where the Mount Pleasant sorting office in Clerkenwell is located today) before he could be brought to trial. He was paraded through the districts of Wapping and Shadwell, dead on an open cart surrounded by the instruments of his crimes, before being shoved into an unmarked grave at the crossroads of Cable Street and Cannon Street, a long stake hammered through his body into the ground below.

The bare facts of the case go a long way to explaining why it haunted me, and has haunted others. Because these murders are in many senses archetypal. Thomas De Quincey took them as the subject for his essay On Murder where he essentially invented the idea of the killer as aesthete. In his view, John Williams (whose guilt he assumed as taken) was an artist of murder, a man seeking to make an impression. It seems to me that there is a direct line between the Ratcliffe Highway murders, De Quincey and our modern taste for the motiveless murder featured in Hollywood staples like The Silence of the Lambs (indeed, any of the Thomas Harris stories – Lecter is an aesthete as well as a monster) or Seven.

However, I think De Quincey‘s depiction is a kind of cop-out. If you remove motive from a murder, and replace it with a kind of philosophical game, then the internal logic of the detective story breaks down. So, in my version of the murders, I wanted to look back at motive. It occurred to me that these murders were indeed monstrous; they did seem to be without motive. Why slaughter the baby? And was it indeed true, as it seems to be, that little money, if any, was taken from the crime scenes? What on earth was driving this?

So I invented my own cop-out. I took the murders to be monstrous, in their own right; which meant that only a monster could have committed them. What kind of monster? Well, you’ll need to read the book to find out.

But more than that  – I needed the monster to have a motive for the killings. A story which is just evil stalking innocence isn’t a thriller, and it probably isn’t very exciting. Motive provides the interest and the mechanism, and I found my motive deep in England’s past guilts and crimes. I broke a lot of rules when I wrote this story, but I didn’t break this one: even monsters need a reason for the things they do.

Lloyd Shepherd

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London, 1811. The twisting streets of riverside Wapping hold many an untold sin. Bounded by the Ratcliffe Highway to the north and the modern wonders of the Dock to the south, shameful secrets are largely hidden by the noise and glory of Trade. But two families have fallen victim to foul murder, and a terrified populace calls for justice. John Harriott, magistrate of the new Thames River Police Office, must deliver revenge up to them and his only hope of doing so is Charles Horton, Harriot’s senior officer. Harriott only recently came up with a word to describe what it is that Horton does. It is detection.

Plymouth, 1564. Young Billy Ablass arrives from Oxford armed only with a Letter of Introduction to Captain John Hawkyns, and the burning desire of all young men; the getting and keeping of money. For Hawkyns is about to set sail in a ship owned by Queen Elizabeth herself, and Billy sees the promise of a better life with a crew intent on gain and glory. The kidnap and sale of hundreds of human beings is not the only cursed event to occur on England’s first officially-sanctioned slaving voyage. On a sun-blasted islet in the Florida Cays,

Billy too is to be enslaved for the rest of his accursed days.

Based on the real-life story of the gruesome Ratcliffe Highway murders, The English Monster takes us on a voyage across centuries, through the Age of Discovery, and throws us up, part of the human jetsam, onto the streets of Regency Wapping, policed only by Officer Horton.

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