Thursday, May 21, 2020

Murder Mystery and Legal History: Part I

An elderly memsahib’s body lies crushed at the bottom of a moonlit ski slope in Kashmir in the twilight of the Raj. Prominent businessmen in colonial Calcutta are mysteriously stabbed in the heart by a gramophone needle as they cross the street. The British governor of the fictional African country of Chania is strangled in his study at the end of a dinner party. A French governess is drowned in an abandoned swimming pool in postwar Berlin. This was not what I had expected I’d be writing about when I was invited to invite to join the Legal History blog as a guest blogger in April 2020.

I was eager to use the opportunity to work through theoretical and methodological questions that were arising out of my current research project which seeks to write an alternate international history of radical lawyering emerging from Asia and Africa in the 1950s, by following a network of civil liberties lawyers as they navigate colonial rule, postcolonial authoritarianism, mass migrations and new social movements. Focusing on legal practice across time, I hoped would make visible how the engagement with anti-colonial trials were formative for a generation of young lawyers who would go onto pioneer new forms of progressive lawyering. As a lawyer and a historian of South Asia, I was moving out to explore new geographies and histories and the challenge of writing a transnational history of local legal events. I wanted to think about how sedition trials in Guyana, Pakistan and Singapore would tell us about the nature of “postcolonial” sedition. And how does one understand how a legal practice for political lawyering is funded and sustained. Or, more curiously, why did so many of the lawyers that I was studying enjoy listening to Paul Robeson. 
Yet, before I could begin, the COVID epidemic reached worrying proportions. I relocated countries in short notice, was working with hastily photographed books and consumed with worry about friends and family. Reading difficult texts or grainy archival photos remains challenging and I found myself regressing to comfort reading, consisting of historical novels and mid 20th century murder mysteries. As historian Aparna Balachandran confirmed in her wonderful essay on “Agatha Christie as Pandemic Reading”, I was not the only person to turn to detective stories. As I was contemplating what, then, to write for the blog, Surabhi Ranganathan suggested that instead of seeing reading for comfort as external to my research, I should think about the links between the two. 
In the series of post to follow, I draw upon three sets of mid 20th century detective novels, both as sources to think about legal history and as worldbuilders for the terrain that the figures I am studying operated in. I am neither a literary scholar nor a book historian, so my explorations should be taken as akin to the amateur detective, often treading over ground already covered by professionals. 

The Game is Afoot

While murders mark the beginning of human civilization, the public fascination with a murder mystery is a particularly modern phenomenon. Scholars ranging from Michael Foucault to Judith Flanders have shown how public fascination with violent crime arose during the 19th century, linked to the growth of the popular press, the emergence of the modern police, new medical, forensic and psychological sciences that sought to claim authority and particularly the separation of the public from the private. Indeed, it is not assassinations or public brawls that fed the Victorian public, but the voyeuristic interest in the crime domestic, the opening up of a private home for public consumption. Literary historians argue that the emergence of detective fiction by the late 19th century developed forms and conventions that were markers of modernity. There remain a number of debates over whether detective stories are inherently leftwing (as opposed to thrillers which are conservative); whether it has literary value or what are the distinct politics of the genre in different languages and regions. There seems to be an overwhelming consensus, that despite its origins in the US with Edgar Alan Poe’s Murders in Rue Morgue and its immense popularity in countries like Japan., the 20th century genre was distinctly centered and influenced by Britain peaking as a genre in the 1930s and 1940s, described as the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction".

Curiously while these are decades of  extreme political turmoil in Europe, economic depression and contentious politics in Britain and radical left wing and nationalist movements across the empire, the Golden Age Detective story remains almost unaffected from the turmoil. There are occasionally shadowy organizations seeking to overthrow regimes in the Balkans (Comrades of the Red Hand in  Secret of the Chimneys), pointedly non-ideological plots for world domination (The Big Four), and whispers of colonial disturbances (Colonel Race in Christie’s Death on the Nile). The idealized setting is what novelist Colin Watson has evocatively described as Mayhem Parva,

            “a cross between a village and commuters' dormitory in the South of England, self-contained and largely self-sufficient. It would have a well-attended church, an inn with reasonable accommodation for itinerant detective-inspectors, a village institute, library and shop — including a chemist's where weed killer and hair dye might conveniently be bought. The district would be rural, but not uncompromisingly so — there would be a good bus service for the keeping of suspicious appointments in the nearby town, for instance — but its general character would be sufficiently picturesque to chime with the English suburb dweller's sadly uninformed hankering after retirement to `the country.”

            While the locations might occasionally be more exotic, such Miss Marple’sinvestigation in St Honore, Hercule Poirot’s visit to Petra or Roderick Alleyn’s trip on a ship from London to South Africa, in reality this was just “Mayhem Parva’ exported. The victim, detective and group of relevant suspects (carefully excluding the “natives” and most of the service staff) were inhabitants of Mayhem Parva transplanted to more colorful settings. The murderer, the detective and usually the victim (making exceptions for blackmailing butlers) were recognizably gentry. The working/service classes if they appeared were crusty but loyal retainers or adenoidal maids who were “pathetically stupid”. 
 Given this general setting of the genre, I was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon Verdict of Twelve by Raymond Postgate.

Part I: Leftists Litigating: Raymond Postgate and the Trouble with Juries

The murder at the heart of the book is classic Mayhem Parva. The setting is a country house in Devon, inhabited by eleven year old orphan Philip Arkwright, his widowed aunt, two long term family retainers, with occasional visits by the local vicar, the aging doctor, a stolid maidservant and the boy’s tutor.  Philip is the owner of considerable fortune and his death would make his aunt a very wealthy woman and his cook and gardener considerable legacies. When Philip dies a lingering and painful death after eating salad for lunch, the autopsy finds the dressing was sprinkled were hederin (found in ivy dust) which grows plentifully around the house.

But this is where Postgate changes the game. The novel doesn’t follow the painstaking investigation into Arkwright’s murder. At the beginning, we know his aunt, Rosalie Van Beer is under arrest and on trial for murder of the nephew and our setting is the Court of the Assizes in London where the clerk is summoning the jurors to take their oaths. The focus of the book remains the twelve jurors, who represent a cross-section of British society.

The book opens with two epigraphs. The first is the juror’s oath in a trial for murder, “Swearing by almighty God, that I will well and truly try and true deliverance make between our Sovereign Lord the King and the Prisoner at the Bar whom I shall have in charge and a true verdict give according to evidence”. The second more intriguingly is from Karl Marx, and notes “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence but on the contrary their social existence that determines their consciousness”. It is the tension between these two epigraphs that holds the book together. While both the police, the tutor (who likes to snoop) and the two lawyers narrate their own investigations, the real detectives in this case are the twelve jurors who are trying to put together  and evaluate the truth drawing on their own social experiences.
The jury trial had long been fetishised as a fundamental right of every Englishman and by the mid 20th century was presented as a mark of civilisational development and testament to freedom. As Kalyani Ramnath shows, in the colonies, “native subjects” demanded the right to trial by jury of their peers and protested the limited system of assessors. Arthur George Popsegrove, the jury foreman, savours as he repeats his oath, these were “splendid words, each phrase with a patina of history upon it. The consciousness of their meaning and their beauty seemed to radiate to him. No one could doubt, watching him, that he would true deliverance make, as far as ever his powers would let him”. A true Englishman named after the original English king (Arthur) and the present one (George) savouring his rights. Yet, as Postgate’s readers know Arthur Popesgrove was born Achilles Papanastasiou in a small village in Greece. And his move to stolid Englishness, was achieved through Athens and the Riviera, using his skills as a “young Levantine who was willing to work, a promising cook, a graceful and even beautiful waiter and dancer, ..with scruples and inhibitions”. Popesgrove’s career to respectability has been marked with petty theft, fraud, blackmail, seducing older men which makes his faith in the British jury system particularly ironic. As foreman he decides his duty is to combat prejudice arguing that the failure of the defendant to give evidence could not be held against her (“the judge made the English law on the point absolutely clear) and that not everyone can keep their head when questioned by a clever lawyer”.
Other jurors view the oath with some dubiousness, Alice Morris, whose husband was murdered in an anti-Semitic attack and whose killers were never prosecuted, wonders why when the law did nothing to protect her, did it expect her to protect and punish others. It wanted her time, “it claims it as a debt”, but couldn’t do anything to save her husband. The fanatical shop assistant, Mr Bryant kinds the oath “our sovereign Lord the King” almost blasphemous, while Victoria Atkins, the tobacconist, thinks it’s a “silly way of talking”. The Verdict of Twelve, is unusual in being a courtroom drama where the professional legal actors come across very poorly.
“All men in wigs and gowns at first sight look like puppets. The room seemed full of marionettes. The judge looked like a shriveled and malicious doll made of leather. Sir Isambard Burns, the chief counsel, for the defense, had a thing long body and a crow like face. Into one eye, he continually fitted and removed an eyeglass; he looked like a Christmas toy performing a tedious trick. Counsel …for the Crown looked like a wax doll; his shiny pink face under his wig looked as unreal as it had been painted”.
The prosecution counsel’s speeches created an atmosphere of resigned tedium, while the defence counsel dramatic cross-examination is shown as hollow, since he “did not mean to imply anything in particular, but hoped to start some irrelevant doubt in the mind of a stupid juror”. As Postgate notes, “ despite the descriptions in detective novels, court cases are rarely dramatic. For one five minute scene, there are hours of dull and formal proceedings”. The introduction of cutting edge psychiatric evidence is played out to gentle ridicule with the jury feeling they “nearly understood what he said, and if they had only paid more attention to the context they would have understood it altogether”. The expert witness ends his cross examination by declaring the victim was a “concealed sado-masochist” with an Oedipal complex. By the end the audience in the courtroom were “openly yawning”, the “air was stale and the room was cold”. The juror Smith, “being a reader of detective novels and expecting scenes of thrilling excitement, did not realize he was going to be “abominably bored”.
Postgate presents the much fetishized British legal machinery under a harsh and unrelenting neon light. While the Golden Age author frequently showed disdain for the bumbling (and often lower middle class) police inspector, at its core was the ideal of British justice, fair trial and the idea that no innocent be wrongly punished. For instance, Superintendent Spence in Mrs McGinty's Dead engages Hercule Poirot to prove the innocence of the man Spence had himself arrested and had been found guilty in a jury trial. The traditional genre of the detective story, as Franco Moretti observes, absolves society of innocence for the crime. The “crime” is resolved by the arrest of the criminal, and the genre rarely goes into the social conditions that made the crime possible. Postgate turns the genre on it’s head, not in the obvious way as many socially minded figures of his times did, in the psychology or economic conditions that is experienced by the “criminal”. Not only is the psychologist a figure of mockery, so is the upper class Socialist poet on the jury, who while “patiently assembling a Marxist interpretation of the evidence”, loudly declaims against “ridiculous, narrow minded and baseless class prejudice”, and ends up subverting justice.

Juries and Class Consciousness

Class remains the defining feature of every character in the narrative, and attempts to shift or alter class positions brings down the ire of the other characters. The jury is resolutely middle class, property and tax qualifications being necessary for jury service. Victoria Atkins, who began life in a backslum and worked as a housemaid, only qualifies because of a recent legacy from an aunt. Postgate however remains firmly attuned to the fine gradations of class in British society. Describing two jurors, Dr Homes as Oxford don, “who was ill bred, repulsive to look at at and grotesquely idle was a gentleman”, while Mr Stannard, “who had worked hard all his life, who was  kindly to all and was as agreeable in presence as in mind” was not because he ran a pub. The jurors range largely through the lower middle class, including a Plasterer’s Union Shop Steward, a hairdresser’s assistant, a door to door salesman and a shop manager. Class mobility and class camouflage, where accents were neutralized and postures copied are heavily police by all classes. Yet class shapes the ability of the jurors to see and empathize, Dr Holmes, the morbidly obese Oxford professor of classics, and perhaps the highest social class in the jury, realizes with sudden shock that his redoubtable analytic skills was little help in the jury It was not “what would a rather dirty minded poet probably have written in the times of Domitian?, but “How to ordinary human beings behave in the times of stress? What did that unpleasant looking woman over there probably do to a boy I have never seen?”
While Postgate is careful to draw attention to economic conditions and class consciousness, there isn’t a patronizing glorification of working classes. He’s acutely conscious of British working class xenophobia. Edward George, plasterer and trade union official, recounts how men drew benefits that they were not entitled to, even drawing strike pay for dead men. Describing the cook and the gardener in the victim’s household, he notes, “they were to all appearances the typical “old retainers”, devoted to the memory of the Old Master, affectionate to the Young Master and resenting the vulgar intruder….but does the Old Retainer ever really exist? Most people who talk of him have never heard servants talk among themselves or have any idea of what goes on when the green baize door closes and talk is really free in the servants hall”. The servants, regarded themselves merely as “two persons, reasonably well rewarded, who performed very well a skilled task, one of whose conditions were a demeanor of respect and loyalty. Affection entered into it very little”, their chief interest was the “accumulation of enough money to retire upon in a cottage of their own”. The young upper class radical Francis Allen’s socialism, despite a bookshelf groaning under Marx’s Capital and selections from the Left Book Club, is described as emotional rather than economic in origin, “his real teachers were Auden, Isherwood, Lewis and Spender”.
Strikingly two of the most significant jurors are women, one an unmarried tobacconist “severe looking, very plain middle aged woman in black, wearing glasses”, and the other a wealthy widow, who stood out “like a single yellow flower in a green field among the dingy collection of mostly middle aged men with grey and red faces”. Given the property qualifications for jury service, it is not surprising that both the women were unmarried. Women had only begun to be serve of British juries in 1920, two years after the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, 1919 and were the subject of critique and caricature in public media as “lacking the constitution or intellect to serve”. Amid ten inattentive, indecisive and prejudiced male jurors, the two women stand out in the clarity of their decisions. Mrs Morris retorts “I don’t think women on juries look at evidence any differently to men”. I know we are supposed to be softer and more gentle and so on, but that doesn’t seem to me to have anything to do with it. Actually, we need the protection of law more than women do.”.

Raymond Postgate’s murder mysteries are not his best known works. A founding member of the British Communist Party, Postgate’s first major work was Bolshevik Theory (1920), a book appreciated by Lenin himself. In 1934, he would publish How to Make a Revolution, drawing on his own experiences as “labour agitator and editor of a communist newspaper” to discuss comparative revolutionary ideas (Marxism, Fascism, Anarchism, Syndicalism etc) and practices (general strikes, financial pressure, armed revolution) keeping in mind current developments in Germany and Russia. His magum opus, The Common People 1746-1946(1939) co-authored his brother in law GDH Cole, was a history of English working classes and political movements over 200 years. Ironically, and perhaps reflecting the peculiar nature of upper-class British communism, his most widely read work remains The Good Food Guide (1951) (originally titled, Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Food) complied because he was aghast at the standard of cooking in post-ward Britain and sought to “ to raise the standard of cooking in Britain’ and ‘to do ourselves all a bit of good by making our holidays, travels and evenings-out in due course more enjoyable”.

Despite his affinities to Fabian socialism and interest in Marxism, Postgate according to Marc Mullholland, insisted upon the agency of individual men and women, drawing attention to the “strength of will, the ability, the courage and even the arguments of his protagonists”. Given that the book began by invoking Marx’s , “conditions create consciousness”, much of the book is an investigation into the conditions behind the individuals who come to represent public will.
The Verdict of Twelve was set in the 1930s but published in 1940, at a moment with British victory in the 2nd World War was less than certain and faced both a political and ideological challenge from both Germany and Russia. What was the value of the British system of justice? Alice Morris, the widow whose husband was killed by an anti-Semitic mob in London, fulminates remembering that her husband’s killers were never punished,
the arm of the law was weak: after (her husband) died the police had explained to her again and again that they had not got the power to arrest all the likely suspects and force them to confess. In Germany, and for that matter in the United States, the law wasn’t made a fool of like that. They fetched in everybody they suspected and if the guilty did’nt confess right away, they were made to all right. Over there they knew how. But here they couldn’t even question people properly, so her husband was dead and not avenged”.
The equation of criminal justice in Nazi Germany and the USA might seem startling to the contemporary reader, but as James Whitman shows, American race, segregation and citizenship laws were eagerly studied by Nazi lawyers as models.  In the 1930s, questions of fair trialwere internationalized and debated across the public sphere, be it the ScottsboroTrials in the US or the Meerut Conspiracy Cases in India. 
D.N Pritt, the Labour MP and flamboyant lawyer (who as Manav Kapur noted makes an offstage cameo in the Verdict of Twelve as competition for the defense counsel, Sir Isambard for posts in a future Labour government), chaired an independent public enquiry in the Reichstag Fire. He also offered a defense of the fairness of the Stalin’s show trials in the 1936. Several left wing lawyers authored studies and defenses of Soviet Justice, contrasting it with the British system. During the Second World War, the stakes of presenting "British justice" as superior, and the nagging doubts that the system was flawed both become starkly apparent.
A Matter of Poison

Legal history has recently taken a toxic turn, with increasing attention to availability and use of poisons in crime, the development of forensic mechanisms to detect poisons and the "poison panics" fed by the popular press. Historians of science and media in Britain have pointed to the use of non-traditional poisons that were increasingly available to ordinary people in the form of arsenic (soaking fly papers), cyanide (destroying wasps nests) or eserine (eye drops)

 But could the suspects in the Arkwright household have known that ivy dust would be fatal? Or how was the doctor able to make the diagnoses in the post-mortem? The clue in this case is a newspaper cutting found in the house that reported a similar case of accidental poisoning in Essex, providing the knowhow to the poisoner. This was not an uncommon incident, as knowledge of poisons proliferated through both the media coverage of "poison panics" and the consumption of detective fiction.
Perhaps the most effective murder mystery has been Agatha Christie's The Pale Horse. As an apothecaries assistant during the First World War, Agatha Christie had a formbidale knowledge of poisons that she put to good use in her books. In Pale Horse, the poison of choice is Thallium, an odourless and tasteless poison that leaves little traces in the body but has a distinctive symptoms such as hair-fall.
There have been atleast three instances, where a Latin American woman was saved from slow poisoning, a baby in Qatar was stopped from accidental poisoning and an American serial killer caught, because the medical and police staff had read Christie's Pale Horse and were able to identify the symptoms of thallium poisoning.

In the next installment of Murder Mystery and Legal History, I'll turn to murders set amid decolonization in Asia and Africa.

PS: A note of thanks to Surabhi Ranganathan for talking through these ideas