Monday, February 18, 2019

The Death Penalty

'They hate executions, you know.  It upsets the other prisoners.  They bang on the doors and make nuisances of themselves.  Everybody's nervous... If one could get out for one moment, or go to sleep, or stop thinking...Oh, damn that cursed clock!...Harriet, for God's sake, hold on to me... get me out of this... break down the door...'
'Hush, dearest, I'm here.  We'll see it out together.'
Through the eastern side of the casement, the sky grew pale with the forerunners of the dawn.
'Don't let me go.'

You'll have recognised this, of course - the last scene in Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers:  Lord Peter Wimsey, in an agony of sensibility as he waits for the moment when the  man whom his power of detection has condemned to the hangman's noose will be executed.

Once I had graduated beyond the Scarlet Pimpernel, I was madly in love with Peter Wimsey for most of my teenage years but it's a long time since I read this. However, of late I've been reading a lot of historic crime fiction, right back to James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner  (1824), and taking in some of the Golden Age fiction on the way in preparation for being on a panel in Alibi in the Archives on 21-23 June in Hawarden, Wales, the country seat of William Gladstone, four times Prime Minister of Great Britain in the Victorian era. (Tickets still available but selling out fast) It now houses all the archives of the famous Detection Club.

Busman's Honeymoon is what Sayers herself described as 'a love story with detective interruptions,'  but it is nonetheless a very well-constructed and intricate crime novel.  Reading this, though, did make me wonder how the death penalty would have changed my attitude to the way I view bringing the murderer to justice in my own books.

I know there are US states which still have the death penalty but it has been abolished here for so long that it's hard to imagine writing about the perpetrator being bundled into the waiting police car  to await retribution with the same satisfaction I feel at present when the outcome, at worst, will be detention at Her Majesty's Pleasure in a prison regularly checked by Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons.  The tone would have to be very different.

The problem is still there in historical fiction. I've never written a historical; if you have, how have  you dealt with this situation?  I'd be very interested to know how you've felt.

And having reread Busman's Honeymoon, I now realise I still haven't grown out of being madly in love with Lord Peter.  Oh dear!


Susan D said...

Still in love with Peter, eh?

A very interesting post, Aline. A topic for a panel discussion?

Yeah, capital punishment. Here in Canada it was officially abolished in 1976, but the last hanging was in 1962.

It's something I've had to think about when writing historical short stories. In one (1931) the sleuth figure, a sympthetic character, reflects she would be pleased to have the killer hang, because of what he did to his victim. I kind of surprised myself when I wrote that part, but realised it was something she (and I) had to think about, since hanging was an inevitable outcome of the detection process.

In another, 1910, the story ends with an innocent man hanging for someone else's crime; again, I surprised myself with that ending. I hadn't seen it coming. And it made me uncomfortable.

It's definitely something that separates the past from the present when it comes to crime writing.

Aline Templeton said...

This is so interesting, Susan. In one of my books I have two detectives discussing how it would affect them if a conviction for murder meant hanging. The historical perspective in the past was very different - death was generally accepted as the appropriate punishment for killing. On the other hand, how do the relatives feel when the murderer serves his term, often remarkably short, and skips out to get on with his life? Not easy.

But yes, Peter Wimsey - sigh!

Anna said...

Oh, Peter Wimsey. You have revived my crush on him. I may never recover.

Sybil Johnson said...

As Aline said, capital punishment is still very much "alive" here in the U.S. though I don't think anyone's been executed in the state of California where I live for quite some time. Texas and Florida seem to be the states that most often enforce the penalty, though that's only my belief not based on any real evidence.

I suspect the U.S. will abolish it at some point, but that's only a guess as well. I've seen a lot of U.S. TV shows deal with it. Most often, they have lawyers trying to stay an execution at the 11th hour because they believe the man to be innocent only to have him executed anyway. Then, after the fact, there's often irrefutable evidence that he was indeed innocent.

Aline Templeton said...

It does seem the ultimate nightmare - the state killing and innocent person. But I suppose you have to look at the killers who have served their time and been released then gone on to kill someone else. Yet here it seems impossible to have a prison sentence that really does mean life.