John Taylor, an undertaker, has been imprisoned for seventeen years for murdering his wife, even though the police have found no body; I suppose that an undertaker is in a uniquely convenient situation for disposing of a corpse without trace. When I read the story, it reminded me of the murder of Muriel McKay, whose body was also never found, though two men were convicted of killing her (police believed that her assassins mistook her for Rupert Murdoch’s then wife, Anna Murdoch, who is also a writer). Such murders stick in the mind because it is so rare for the body not to be discovered. Even where there isn’t sufficient evidence to convict without one and the murderer appears to have got away with it, bodies have an odd habit of turning up unexpectedly, sometimes many years later. I’m thinking now of the ‘lady in the lake’ murder of Carol Park, who disappeared in 1976, but whose body was not found until 1997, by which time her husband, Gordon, who was then convicted of her murder, had married twice again.
The new Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum shows us how durable human remains are – though these particular skeletons were preserved by unusual natural phenomena. Yet well-preserved ancient skeletons from the past are often found in ordinary graves – the recent discovery of Richard III’s almost intact bones offers a good example. Even unceremoniously-buried bones, such as those found in an old charnel pit discovered during this year’s Crossrail excavations and thought to date from the time of the Great Plague of 1665 show remarkable resistance to the passage of time. The supreme example, of course, of a body which has stood the test of time and miraculously appeared millennia after his demise is that of ‘Ötzi the Iceman’ in the Ötztal Alps; ice is a great preserver.
You’d think it would be easy to conceal a body for ever, but clearly it isn’t. No doubt some murderers have managed to do it; some will even have committed the ‘perfect crime’ – i.e., one that has not been discovered. This is a macabre kind of virtuoso performance that can never be boasted about or celebrated, though no doubt some will have been unable to resist and fallen into the trap of talking about the deed, thus giving themselves away.
Bodies: the stuff of crime writing; tough and surprisingly persistent in making their appearance.