The Prisoners Property Act of 1869 permitted Scotland Yard to confiscate crime paraphernalia for instructional purposes. The resulting collection, known as the Black Museum, has frighted viewers ever since. Cabinets contain Newgate death masks, exhibits from the Brighton Trunk Murders, and a display of “Notorious Poisoners.” Sadly, only certifiable police officers and their relations are admitted. (My phoning up and pretending to be a police officer met with little success.)
In The Murder Room, the 12th in the Adam Dalgliesh series, P.D. James offers a more populist alternative. The Dupayne, a museum (open to all!) dedicated to the interwar years, has its own Black Museum—a chamber of horrors that inspires a series of copycat murders. The éminence grise of British detective fiction, James delivers another ruminative puzzler, generous in character, graceful in prose. Indeed, James often seems reluctant to include the murder itself (especially any steamier sexual aspects), preferring to lavish attention on setting and psychology. As a minor figure instructs Dalgliesh,
“Real-life murder today, apart from being commonplace and a little vulgar, is inhibiting of the imagination.” At the considerable age of 83, James still suffers from a sort of prudery—the book concludes with the promise of un mariage blanc—but her imagination appears quite uninhibited.