“JonBenét is our generation’s Lindbergh baby.”
—unidentified curator, Colorado Historical Society1
“The study of criminology has by no means made me a cynic; it has encouraged my admiration for the ingenuity of the race.”
—William Roughead,Chronicles of Murder
The profound and disturbing disequilibrium provoked by the commission of a crime demands a response, if the fabric of society is not to be rent. What we mean by revenge is private justice, committed when public justice is unavailable or untrustworthy, as terrorism is the response of seemingly desperate, despairing persons for whom the more orderly procedures of politics are unavailable or untrustworthy.
In the category of nonfiction known as “true crime,” most of the crimes investigated are murders, and most of the murders have been solved. Disequilibrium has been quelled by the knowledge that the criminal has been identified, apprehended, usually tried and convicted and imprisoned; in eras not too removed from ours, most murderers were summarily executed. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth is the most primitive formula for justice and possibly the most psychologically satisfying, however inhumane and “uncivilized.” The Greeks recognized the power and authority of blood lust and the appetite for revenge; Athena doesn’t banish the Furies, but assimilates them into the new, more rational (yet perhaps in terms of punishment no less bloody) system of justice.
Accounts of true crime have always been enormously popular among readers. The subgenre would seem to appeal to the highly educated as well as the barely educated, to women and men equally. The most famous chronicler of true crime trials in English history is the amateur criminologist William Roughead, a Scots lawyer who between 1889 and 1949 attended every murder trial of significance held in the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh, and wrote of them in essays published first in such journals as The Juridical Review and subsequently collected in best-selling books with such titles as Malice Domestic, The Evil That Men Do, What Is Your Verdict?, In Queer Street, Rogues Walk Here, Knave’s Looking Glass, Mainly Murder, Murder and More Murder, Nothing But Murder, and many more.2
Roughead, much admired by Henry James, wrote in a style that combined intelligence, witty skepticism, and a flair for old-fashioned storytelling and moralizing; his accounts of murder cases and trials have the advantage of being concise and pointed, like folk tales. “The Rattenbury Tragedy” begins,
Sometimes—just sometimes—cupid’s dart, departing from the romantically assigned rôle of the poet’s gentle image, is metamorphosed into an arrow, a barbed and lethal thing. More than half-a-century ago now, the target of one such bowstring’s cruel deceiver was a little white house nestling amid pines within soothing sound of the murmurous sea.
At times, Roughead displays a startling Borgesian flair, as in the opening of “Dr. William Smith of St. Fergus”:
Crime, like history, tends to repeat itself, and the genuine innovator may, quite unfairly, find himself designated imitator. Thus,…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.