Sunday, December 10, 2017

Nothing But Murder (1946)

This collection came late in the career of the amateur criminalist and essayist William Roughead, who lived and worked in Scotland as an attorney. Scads of his crime case studies were published for entertainment purposes from 1901 until past his death in 1952. This book came shortly after World War II, but the pieces are older, published for the first time in the US here and intended for an American market. Typically enough they're pretty good. Roughead has an interesting taste for crime, though he indulges a macabre aesthetic that can be too wryly cute by half. So it stumbles out of the gate with the silly overture of an imagined congress of notorious criminals judging one another on just such grounds. It's hollow graveyard laughter, attempting distance from the motivations that drive the project (whatever those motivations are exactly ... I can get a bit coy around the point myself). It's better when he gets down to the details of cases because he picks interesting ones. The first is about a group of stowaway boys who were forced to leave the ship and walk barefoot across an ice sheet back to shore. Two drowned in the process. Roughead's basic strategy is to lay out the facts of the case as brought to trial by the police and used by prosecutors, and then go to the trial transcript. Thus it shifts radically and can take some getting used to, but ultimately it makes these proceedings all the more vivid, reading the words of the witnesses. The longest piece here, "Locusta in Scotland," presents a history of poisoning in Scotland, from the 16th century to the 1920s. The cases become monotonous, but more interesting is the history of the crime, from the earliest determinations that it is indeed a crime through the various advances in detection and understanding symptoms. A separate essay details a case of poisoning in 1613 that peels away layer after layer of court intrigue under King James VI and I (the Bible rewrite guy). Frankly I got lost in that one, but it sounded like a lot of dirty business all the way around. Roughead's work is best approached on literary terms, rather than purely informational, because he has an eccentric vocabulary, he can really take his time getting to the point, and he's capable of paragraphs that run longer than a page (or two). I liked the first half of Nothing But Murder more than the second, but I suspect that's a matter of fatigue as much as anything. He's charming and digressive and often a pleasure. It doesn't matter if the crimes are 20th-century vintage or ancient, it's all still crime—that eternal human impulse. It's weirdly comforting in some way to read these pieces, as if the unflappable Roughead has set out to explain the boogie man once and for all. About time someone did.

In case it's not at the library.

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