Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The History of Murder

Those of you who are familiar with my obsession with reading about science, philosophy, the arts, and World War Two may find it surprising that my guilty non-fiction reading pleasure is true crime books.

Unfortunately, the true crime genre is filled with badly written tripe ranging from the mountains of mediocre Mafia books to the truly pathetic "From The X-Files of Murder" (which I read over a couple lunchtimes recently, and was sorely disappointed with). There are also the comprehensive, yet somewhat perfunctory, case files such as "Drug Lords: The Rise and Fall of The Cali Cartel" (which was actually pretty good for that style of book), interesting pop-tech books like John Douglas' "The Anatomy of Motive," and even the occasional gripping personal narrative like William Queen's "Under And Alone" (which I desperately wanted to adapt as a screenplay when I read it, but unfortunately Daniel Barnz and Ned Zeman had the same idea first). What is generally lacking in the genre, however, are any sort of well written, engaging histories (ideally, of the quality of a Richard Rhodes or Martin Gilbert).

Enter Colin Wilson and the deceptively titled "The Mammoth Book of the History of Murder." Having been unfamiliar with Wilson, and given that title, I had expected its 500+ pages to be filled with typical true crime historiography: titillating anecdotes listed in chronological order, with no premise, no analysis, and no historical grounding.

I was pleasantly surprised. Wilson, a largely self-taught philosopher, is a literate writer. And while it turns out he is better known in the U.S. for his books on mysticism, this book sticks to the subject without any real digressions into that territory. It is sadly not a masterpiece in the vein of Rhodes or Gilbert, but it is a very readable, egaging tract that actually bothers to have a thesis.

Though it is indeed rooted in a series of titillating anecdotes listed in chronological order, Wilson ties these together with historical grounding, sociological analysis, and, most surprisingly, literary and artistic reference to both describe the times he's writing about and root some of his social premises in contemporary interpretations. Some of the historical grounding is light, as the focus is on the crimes themselves, but there is enough to draw a basic picture of an era for an otherwise historically uninformed reader.

Wilson does build-up a premise: that contemporary murder, particularly thrill killing and sex murder, was once the privilege of the upper classes (such as Gilles de Rais) for the particular reason that they were comfortable enough to eschew common crimes for material gain or to avenge one's "honor." Being spoiled, Wilson demonstrates through numerous cases, is a necessary precursor for this kind of psychopathology. Prior to our modern era, the working classes did not generally have enough resources to become spoiled and thus their crimes, no matter how copious and gruesome, were nearly always rooted in personal material gain or vengeance (such as Sweeney Todd). It is an interesting idea, and while this is not a scholarly work of criminology or psychology, Wilson does a credible job of making this point.

Though there are also a few dubious or underdeveloped ideas in this book (particularly his thinly drawn premise that rape stems from a different psychological basis among the pre-industrial poor), ultimately it is an interesting popular history that holds together rather well against many of its genre peers. It is particularly good as an overview, providing the reader with a slew of historical people, cases and literature to pursue on their own. I've read other reviews which claim that Wilson's two-book "The Killers Among Us" is a superior work, and given that "The History of Murder" is itself a surprisingly good work in a genre that too often embraces simply awful writing, I look forward to finding out whether or not those reviews are correct.