During the golden age of British murder, not only the murderers and their advocates, but the forensic pathologists whose evidence was vital in convicting or acquitting them, were celebrities or at least household names, even – or especially – for readers of the popular press. Luminaries such as Glaister and Sydney Smith published popular books (The Power of Poison, Mostly Murder), but the most successful of the genre was undoubtedly Keith Simpson’s Forty Years of Murder. Published in 1978, when the author was 71, it was a worldwide best-seller.
Simpson (1907 – 1985) begins the book by asking rhetorically why he chose pathology, and on the last page he provides an answer, perhaps more compelling now than ever before: ‘My patients,’ he writes, ‘never complain.’ He allows himself the frankness – or is it the insensitivity? – of another age, though the book was written only a third of a century ago:
When I have seen strangled girls who had deliberately taken the occupational risks of prostitution, drunken sots who had toppled downstairs to their death, or the adolescent victims of the lure of drug addiction, I have often said without the slightest emotional disturbance, ‘Better out of this world…’
Who would dare admit to such sentiments today? His division of the victims of sex crimes into prostitutes and nice girls would not find much favour, either, even supposing it were possible: though Simpson is at pains to point out that his moral opinion of the victim or the suspect never affected his judgment on a technical matter. I believe him.
His sense of humour is of the macabre kind, as perhaps one might expect of a member of his fraternity. Here, for example, is his advice to those who unexpectedly find a body at their feet or in their house:
There is no question, if you find yourself standing over the body of your mother-in-law clutching a claret bottle and she’s lying there bleeding at your feet, you must at least call for help.
What is not quite clear from this passage is whether it is you or your mother-in-law who is clutching the bottle of claret, but I suppose that is an inessential detail.
His dryness belongs to another age. Describing how Haigh, the acid-bath murderer, disposed of the body of Mrs Durand-Deacon after shooting her, he says:
Then, removing her Persian lamb coat and jewellery, he had put her fully clothed body into a 40-gallon steel tank, and gone to the café across the road for a poached egg on toast and a cup of tea.
If he’d gone for champagne, we wouldn’t smile. But a poached egg on toast…
Simpson tells the astonishing story of the matron of a private nursing home who, in 1950, suffocated an elderly patient who had pushed her beyond endurance by her contrariness. She was found guilty of manslaughter, and given only a short sentence because of the provocation she had endured (she was normally of exemplary character and conduct). It was Simpson who had done the post-mortem on the deceased and given evidence in court about cause of death.
Twenty years later he took his mother, now aged 90 and no longer able to live independently, to a nursing home. The matron of the nursing home was the one against whom he testified in 1950.
‘I do hope,’ he said to her, ‘that my old mother won’t be any trouble to you.’
As Professor Simpson writes later in the book: ‘Every doctor, for all his professional detachment, still has his feelings.’ We express them differently now.
Copyright 2013 Anthony Daniels