Real aficionados claim that these books are more than elegant puzzles. A good murder for them is also a key to understanding a way of life, a historical period, an outlook. The great affection for Agatha Christie I discovered across the former Soviet Union was partly based on readability, surely, but also on the exploration of aspects of English society and a certain authorial view of life. Yes, England as the Imperial Hotel Torquay or a sleepy thatched village with a few badly secured medicine and gun cabinets... no wonder they looked at me strangely.
But, come to think of it, two outstanding works of social history I've read in the last couple of years were concerned with murder - in each case, a child murder. The Italian boy by Sarah Wise paints a vivid picture, in its account of the murder of an Italian street vendor by resurrection men, of the extensive European networks of migrant child workers in the early 19th century, the links between medical schools and body-snatchers, the criminal underworld and its modes of operation, the sounds and smells and economies of London markets, the police and prisons and executions. There's a Burke and Hare parallel, of course.
Comrade Pavlik, by Catriona Kelly, explores the nature of a different childhood and its terrible end, the murder of a child in a remote rural area in the Urals following his laying information against his father to the authorities. The supposed facts of the case, rather incompletely confirmed by surviving documents, show a rural resistance to collectivization and a provincial officialdom struggling to meet quotas for convicting kulaks (in reality, peasants with only a little more than their neighbours or a little less careful or lucky in expressing their opinions about communism) and dispossessions of the same. The book shows how the narrative (even at the trial stage, which saw a grandfather and an uncle convicted and soon executed) was taken over by Party bureaucrats and routed in a particular direction. Pavlik Morozov became the model young Pioneer, putting state above family, a victim of "reactionary wrecking elements" who were revealed to be shockingly widespread and were thereafter by degrees more easily snuffed out.
What Kelly's book also reveals is how the Morozov biography was further polished by the great Gorky and a whole series of journalists and children's writers to become a role model for the growing Pioneer youth movement, with the paternal denunciation that triggered the murder becoming more invisible. Gradually the Party became more supportive of the family and children were encouraged to be more docile, less activist, while other heroes came along to supplant young Pavlik - sometimes fictional, sometimes real heroes of the Great Patriotic War. Now the monuments to Pavlik and his equally hapless younger brother, such as they are (interestingly, never as many as planned), are decayed and neglected. Back in the 1930s Stalin had his own private opinion of Comrade Pavlik: "What a little shit!"