True crime: The Murder Detectives vs The Crime Museum Uncovered

Crime editor Ruth Tross compares her experience visiting the Crime Museum Uncovered exhibit with Channel 4's documentary The Murder Detectives.

Posted on December 15, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: black museum, crime museum uncovered, museum of london, the murder detectives, true crime

My brother – who is three years older than me – was the kind of kid who only read non-fiction; and preferably gross non-fiction at that. Obviously I wanted to read whatever he was reading, because he was cool. That is why, at the age of ten, I had read ‘Murders of the Black Museum’ (a compendium of Victorian and early 20th century crimes), a really schlocky book called something like ‘The Murder Diaries’ which included a famous murder for every day of the year, and also seen the Jack the Ripper autopsy photos.

And my parents wonder why I ended up a crime editor…

So when the Museum of London announced the exhibition of evidence from Scotland Yard’s ‘Black Museum’, which would cover many of the crimes we’d gleefully read about back in the 80s (Maybrick, Crippen, Rillington Place, the Brides in the Bath…) my brother and I cheerfully bought tickets and headed down.

I knew it would be disturbing – it’s an exhibition about murder – and I do think the people who organised it were very careful and considerate about what they did and didn’t show: no recent cases where the families of the victims could be upset, no human remains, a focus on forensics and the detective side of things. As far as possible, it was never gratuitous or gory.

And yet after a while I began to feel not just unnerved, but really tawdry. There is the actual trunk a body was found in. There is the actual murder weapon. And, on the other side, there is the actual noose. Surrounded by instruments of death and the sad remnants of appalling crimes, I began to feel like I really shouldn’t be there. I don’t regret going, and I don’t think they shouldn’t have done it. But personally I felt like a voyeur, that I was getting cheap thrills from the experience rather than anything more meaningful and profound.

I couldn’t quite figure out why until I found myself watching the documentary series The Murder Detectives. In case you missed it, this was three episodes covering the police investigation into the murder of a nineteen year old in Bristol in 2014. It’s a really hard watch at times: the rawness of the family’s loss is brutal. But then it should be. It felt like a privilege to be invited into their world, and also felt like the documentary, the police, all of it, was dignified and respectful and never lost sight of the human victim at the heart of it. It even managed to humanise the killer, too.

Maybe the difference is just one of time. Jack the Ripper is a story to us. I’m not sure how real it can feel to anyone. As time passes, it seems like the focus ends up permanently focussed on the killer rather than the victims; I know the name John Christie but I couldn’t tell you who he killed. And famous murders are fascinating, I won’t deny that, but I think we start to think of them as fiction, not fact. Going to the Crime Museum forced me to confront that the gross details of acid and dismemberment that I so eagerly read about were real things that happened to real people. I had to remember the victims. The Murder Detectives was so powerful, I reckon, because it never let you forget – you never had that ‘thrill’ because it was always about the sad truth.

I’m not sure ‘recommend’ is the right word, but if you’re at all interested in crime novels or indeed in true crime, I think you should watch it – because it refuses to let you simply follow the ins and outs of the investigation, and never focuses on the motives of the killer. It never forgets what the victim is owed.

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