Publisher Dan Collins was grateful enough to allow us to post Dalrymple’s foreword.
Edward Spencer Shew was born in 1908 and died aged 68 in 1977. For many years he was a parliamentary lobby correspondent. He published a novel, Miss Proutie, in 1952, and in 1971 a pulp novel adaptation of a Hammer horror film, The Hands of the Ripper, itself based on a short story by him. His wife Betty wrote books about royalty and in 1996 letters that the Queen had written to her in 1947 about her future husband, Prince Philip, were sold at auction.
Between his excursions into fiction, Edward Spencer Shew wrote two classic books, A Companion to Murder, published in 1960, and A Second Companion to Murder, published in 1961. The first of these books won an Edgar Award in 1963, one of the prestigious prizes awarded annually by the Mystery Writers of America. But I think it fair to say that, brilliant and entertaining as these books are, they are nowadays known only to a small group of aficionados. I have never met anyone, however, who has read them who did not become a devotee and an admirer of their author.
They do not pretend to be encyclopaedias of murders committed in Britain between 1900 and 1950, but rather compendia of the most interesting cases. The period chosen includes the apogee and then decline of what might be called the golden age of British murder, that is to say of murder committed not just in that sordid underworld that has always existed and in which murder is only to be expected, but of murder committed in a respectable and religious middle or lower middle class environment, where murders were not just a matter of ‘two blockheads to kill and be killed,’ as De Quincey put in his essay On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts. Spencer Shew wrote at the end of what might be called the cosy era of crime in Britain, during which violence had fallen to the lowest levels in history and therefore might be read about in comfort as something exotic and mildly titillating.
George Orwell, in The Decline of the English Murder, delineated what the criteria for the ‘perfect murder’ of the period:
The murderer should be a little man of the professional class… living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall. He should be either chairman of the local Conservative Party branch, or a leading Non-conformist and strong Temperance advocate. He should go astray through cherishing a guilty passion… In the last analysis he should commit murder because this seems to him less disgraceful, and less damaging to his career, than being detected in adultery.
Such murders can be committed only where respectability retains its hold as a desideratum on the great mass of the population, and Spencer Shew chronicled, through its crime, the end of the era of respectability. His book is therefore valuable as social history; but if he was fortunate in his period, his period was fortunate in him.
His vignettes of the murders, murderers, victims, trials, defence and prosecution barristers, and judges (who were all household names in their day as are stars of television programmes now), are masterpieces of compression, conveying atmosphere, character and event in few but brilliantly chosen words. Here, for example, are the first words of his description of the infamous ‘Brides in the Bath’ murderer, George Joseph Smith, who pretended to marry three women in succession and then drowned them in the bath a few days afterwards (claiming that they had suffered from epileptic fits) to collect their insurance money:
George Joseph Smith, murderer, bigamist, swindler, performer on the harmonium…
The last characteristic comes to the reader as an electric shock, and also conveys to perfection the Non-conformist petty bourgeois milieu in which Smith operated. The tune he played after drowning his so-called wives, incidentally, was ‘Nearer my God to thee.’
Spencer Shew mastered the art – one of the hardest for a writer to master – of paring everything down to its essentials, not a word too many, not a word out of place. If you want to know about the social history of Britain, if murder interests you as it interests most of mankind, if you want to learn how to write spare, accurate English prose full of humour without flippancy and rawness without vulgarity, read Edward Spencer Shew!