Sunday, January 09, 2011

Classic Crimes (1913-1937)

William Roughead and Edmund Lester Pearson began corresponding in the '20s and by the evidence enjoyed a long, close, and cordial friendship, each recognizing in the other something of a spiritual brother. Born only 10 years apart, both devoted themselves in the hours away from their careers—Roughead as a lawyer in Scotland, Pearson as a librarian in Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, and New York City—to their passionate avocations of pursuing the details of true crime cases. Pearson has his touchstone obsession with the Lizzie Borden case, while Roughead tended to be more catholic and wide-ranging in his appreciations, pushing back further into history, and not confining himself as much only to murder. Both are excellent, wry, and charming writers; fans of Roughead have included Henry James, FDR, and Toni Morrison. This collection of Roughead's work published by the "New York Review of Books" gathers up a dozen cases across the scope of his career—as he referred to them, "adventures in criminal biography." It provides probably the best starting point for his work, which is maddening in the duplications scattered across his now almost entirely out-of-print volumes (and which tend to command ridiculous and disappointingly high prices anyway). Here you will find the details of the case of Deacon Brodie, which inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, of Madeleine Smith, a "trial of the century" nominee in the mid-1800s, and of Burke and Hare, early 19th-century serial killers in Scotland enterprisingly and systematically harvesting corpses for anatomists, a lucrative trade then. The motivations and the deeds are sadly timeless; very little reported on so breathlessly nowadays is anything that has not already happened one way or another centuries ago, and usually for the same reasons. As with Pearson, Roughead tends in some ways toward the ponderous, and occasionally can even become a bit of a scold, which I suspect is all just a way of maintaining distance from the mayhem in which he otherwise happily wallows. One is well-advised to keep a good dictionary on hand when reading him as his vocabulary, drawing on many Scottish idioms now largely lost, is as rich as it is apt.

In case it's not at the library.

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