There is an essay by George Orwell entitled “Decline of English Murder.” Written in 1946, it celebrates—if that is the word—the golden age of British domestic homicide, which Orwell sees as running from roughly 1850 to 1925. He picks out the nine or ten murderers from that period whose notoriety has, in his opinion, stood the test of time, and points out how much (setting aside Jack the Ripper) they had in common. They were mostly middle-class, and generally motivated by passion, or rather by the need to conceal passion. Where they killed for gain, the sums involved were small, and their crimes took place amid surroundings of dingy respectability.

Almost all the figures Orwell mentions are now much less well-known than they were at the time he wrote. But one name still burns brightly—that of Dr. Crippen, who in 1910 poisoned his wife Cora, buried her remains in the cellar of their house in north London, and...

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