The following review appeared in edition 160 of Ripperologist magazine.
THE MURDER GANG: FLEET STREET’S ELITE GROUP OF CRIME REPORTERS IN THE GOLDEN AGE OF TABLOID CRIME
Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2018 www.thehistorypress.co.uk hardcover & ebook 240pp; illus; biblio; index ISBN:978075098371 £20 hardcover & £8.54 ebook
A man wearing a trench coat and a trilby hat, a cigarette burning away, a glass close to hand. A noisy smoke-filled pub near Fleet Street or maybe down by Aldgate, drizzling rain outside, grey skies threatening a storm. A shifty character shuffles up to the man. A quiet word is exchanged, the man talking without moving his lips, and maybe a pound note surreptitiously changes hands before “Shifty” shuffles out. It’s a tip off, the word on the street, maybe the headline of tomorrow’s Daily Sketch.
From the 1930s until the mid-1960s the staple diet of newspapers wasn’t the doings of temporarily famous soap stars and pop bands like it is today, but crime and criminals, and Fleet Street had reporters nosing out stories on the streets, in pubs, snooker halls, and assorted shady places. Hilde Marchant, a journalist all but forgotten today, but wrote a hard-to-come-by account of her coverage of WWII, Women and Children Last: A Woman Reporter’s Account of the Battle of Britain, wrote a feature for the photojournalism magazine Picture Post in 1947 in which she gave a name to the crème de la crème of these crime journalists: the “Murder Gang”.
These guys all knew each, some hung out together, but the competition for the story was fierce, no holds barred. This was a time when, to quote Neil Root, “anything went so long as the story landed on the front page and papers were sold.”
These journalists, writes Root, “would stop at nothing to get the story. If that meant becoming criminals in the process then that was part of the job. It was a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, stressful, highly competitive job with long and irregular hours, populated by larger than life characters, often using dubious and highly unethical methods.”
But these men weren’t chasing down some “who cares” scandal involving a here-today-gone-tomorrow television personality. Most of the people about whom the “Murder Gang” were writing - Buck Ruxton, Donald Hume, James Hanratty, John Bodkin Adams, John George Haigh, John Christie, and Neville Heath - were or would soon be standing in the shadow of the gallows. This was life and death stuff and it sold newspapers. Lots of them.
These were different and journalistically more exciting times, but by the mid-1960s, when I Can’t Get No Satisfaction blasted from jukeboxes in pubs and canteens across the country, the hard-boiled crime journalist, trench coat flapping and trilby tilted jauntily on the back of his head, walked almost unnoticed into the sunset. Television had happened, giving an immediacy to the news and claiming a large chunk of advertising money that would hitherto have gone into the coffers of the newspapers. Newspaper circulation began declining and journalism was changing, news stories were fast taking the back seat to features and analysis. It is also generally agreed that the public’s rather dubious love affair with crime journalism declined when the death penalty was repealed.
The Murder Gang isn’t altogether original. Back in 2016, we saw Duncan Campbell’s We’ll All Be Murdered in Our Beds: The Shocking History of Crime Reporting in Britain, and it told of some of the nefarious tricks employed by journalists in the 60s and 70s, but books looking at crimes through the eyes of crime reporters are decidedly thin on the ground and Neil Root has done a good job drawing upon first-hand accounts of the “golden age” of crime reporting. Recommended.
Review by Paul Begg.