Mount Alvernia High School, Newton, Massachusetts

Christopher  Fowler

Caitlin  Flanagan 
Crime and Punishment in London

Christopher Fowler: Social Criticism of Government Censorship and Citizen Compliance

Christopher Fowler’s criticism of the English government for withholding information and its citizens’ willingness to comply, emphasizes the need to look to the past in order to discover a way to correct the pattern of submission that London has fallen into. Fowler’s writing style takes advantage of the very problem he is criticizing; he limits the information he provides to his readers, just as the government censors information in order to manipulate a particular response. Throughout the Peculiar Crime Unit mystery series, historical references are made to highlight the idea that by learning from the past similar mistakes can be avoided. In Fowler’s novels Full Dark House, The Victoria Vanishes, and The Water Room three of the Peculiar Crimes Unit’s most notable cases are described in relation to how information is controlled. Fowler’s protagonists, two elderly detectives, May and Bryant, reveal that by understanding the past, they are able to solve modern cases.

The Peculiar Crimes Unit in Fowler’s novels is located on Bow Street, the real historical home of the Bow Street Runners, one of London’s first informal associations for crime prevention. Before the creation of a public police force in the nineteenth century, London authorities employed cruel public punishments to control crime in the crowded city. The initial purpose of instituting heinous public punishments was to deter crime through public fear of a similar punishment. To some extent this method was successful, but after several centuries the harsh punishments began to foster violence, desensitization, and sympathy for criminals within the community. Londoners spoke out and instituted change when they felt that a punishment was unjust. Harsh punishments were replaced by seemingly more humane sentences, such as serving time in prison. Due to public outcry, prison life eventually changed because it was apparent that the system was unjust. While London officials instituted a variety of punishments, they also responded in a variety of ways to the problem of public order, beginning with neighborhood-watch groups, developing into semiformal organizations such as the Bow Street Runners, and ending with a formal government- sponsored police force.

Major Works Consulted:

Fowler, Christopher. Full Dark House: A Peculiar Crimes Unit Mystery. New York: Bantam, 2003.
---. The Victoria Vanishes: A Peculiar Crimes Unit Mystery. New York: Bantam, 2008.
Gatrell, V.A.C. The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868. NewYork: Oxford UP, 1994.
Shoemaker, Robert. The London Mob: Violence and Disorder in an Eighteenth-CenturyCity. London: Hambledon & London, 2004.
Photo Credit: Christopher Fowler. The Water Room: A Peculiar Crimes Unit Mystery. New York: Bantam, 2004.