Magazine article New Criterion

The Anatomy of Murder

Magazine article New Criterion

The Anatomy of Murder

Article excerpt

One way and another, I meet quite a lot of murderers. Their crimes are merely sordid: there is nothing about them that remotely brings to mind De Quincey's famous essay, "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts." The passions that lead to modern murder have no grandeur, tragic or otherwise, about them: they are low, savage and frequently drunken, symptomatic of modern man's emotional life, which is intense but shallow and changeable. It isn't surprising that, in my experience at least, remorse seldom lasts longer than a few days, though regret and bitterness at the consequences of the act of murder may last rather longer.

The means employed in modern murder have nothing artistic or romantic about them either: a kitchen knife in the spleen or a punch to the face, succeeded by a blow to the head struck by the waiting curbside. Sometimes one longs for a little more refinement, and very occasionally, it is true, one meets a poisoner: for example, a vet who was accused of putting his wife down with horse anaesthetic, who was subsequently acquitted when an equivocal suicide note in his dead wife's hand was found hidden in a bookcase; or a woman who dissolved the contents of her antidepressant capsules into cough syrup and fed them to her sleeping daughter through a syringe into the mouth, so that her estranged husband should have no access to her--a variant of the if-I-can't-have-her-no-one-else-will type of murder. (Her method was deemed so original that the court gave her only three years' probation as "punishment"-for once the scare quotes are fully justified.) And a friend and colleague of mine has become a recognized expert on murder by insulin, fatally administered by nurses to those--including crippled husbands-who are delivered into their care. Though conceptually simple, such murders present forensic difficulties for technical reasons. But the fact remains that murders whose method is anything other than both obvious and brutal remain very few and far between.

As for the motive of murder, it is rarely less transparent and inglorious than the means employed. Those who kill for insurance money, for example, can seldom wait longer than a couple of weeks after increasing the sum insured from, say, $26,000 to $1,230,000: the desire to avoid unnecessary premium payments giving even our police force, with its rule-and-procedure helplessness brought about by decades of civil libertarian lobbying, a clue of probative value. But by far the most common motive is lust combined with wounded amour propre.

Was it ever thus? I suspect that it was, human nature being what it is, though the prevalence of illicit desire and the frequency with which it is acted upon may change, usually (these days) in the direction of increase. The murder rate has doubled since 1960, and an article in a recent issue of the learned journal Homicide Studies--how long can it be before homicide is a university subject, study of which leads to a D. Hom.?--suggested that, had it not been for improvements in surgical technique since 1960, the murder rate would be five times higher than it is, that is to say, ten times higher than it was in 1960: a conclusive proof, if any were needed, that technical and moral progress do not necessarily go hand in hand.

The literature of murder also reflects a social change. I take as my texts almost at random two crime novels, the first published in 1931, Malice Aforethought, by Francis lies (the pseudonym of Anthony Berkeley Cox), and the second published in 1990, Hide and Seek, by Ian Rankin. In Malice Aforethought, murder is an unexpected irruption into an ordered and orderly world; in Hide and Seek, murder is the natural consequence of the way we live now. It is the continuation of relationships by other means. The books describe two social worlds--universes apart.

It is almost as if we had travelled (in our murder literature, at least) in precisely the direction opposite to that recommended by De Quincey's fictional lecturer to the Society of Connoisseurs in Murder, published in 1827:

   People begin to see that something more goes to the composition of a
   fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a
   purse, and a dark lane. … 
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