The Henry James of Crime

The genre we call “true crime,” obviously one of the very oldest in literature, has, despite a biblical pedigree, spent much of its career in the literary slums. The genre from which it is adjectivally distinguished—although seldom referred to as “false crime”—has produced classics as well as potboilers, but the nonfictional narrative of crime has chiefly been associated with such raffish vehicles as the ballad broadside, the penny dreadful, the tabloid extra, the pulp detective magazine, and the current pestilence of paperbacks uniform in their one-sentence paragraphs, two-word titles, and covers with black backgrounds, white letters, and obligatory splash of blood. There’s really nothing wrong with any of these—even the current paperbacks are bound to seem more charming as time passes. Still, you might wonder: Where is the Homer of true crime, its Cervantes, its Dostoyevsky?

William Roughead might at least be its Henry James. The two were friends and correspondents, and they shared a variety of interests and inclinations: complex characters, hopelessly tangled motives, labyrinths of nuance, arcane language, byzantine sentence structure. Roughead was a Scotsman who was born in 1870 and died in 1952, although the unknowing reader would be forgiven for ascribing to him a set of dates several decades earlier, so resolutely unmodern is his prose—not that it is in any way stiff, cold, musty, or particularly quaint. He began his career at twenty-three as a Writer to the Signet, a term that has no literary implication, referring rather to an elite body of Scottish attorneys. He was in fact a lawyer, and his passion for the law extended well beyond his actual duties. As he notes in passing several times herein, he was from his youth both a frequent spectator at major trials and an indefatigable collector of newspaper clippings on criminal cases that interested him, and he went on to edit a number of the volumes in the celebrated Notable British Trials series, then to collect his commentaries in books issued by a small press in Edinburgh. His works were taken up by a commercial publisher only when he was in his sixties.

So mercantile calculation clearly played no part in determining his choice of pursuits. His was one of those astoundingly ambitious Edwardian hobbies that differed from professions only in their lack of financial compensation—it was a time when every retired general seemed to be translating Hesiod and every diplomat apparently had a sideline in paleontology. In Roughead we can observe the most sophisticated and refined expression of the British middle-class armchair fascination with crime. When, in “The West Port Murders,” Roughead invites us to look over his shoulder at “an inch-square bit of brown leather” that is in fact a fragment of the tanned skin of the murderer and ghoul William Burke, handed down by the author’s grandfather, the scene—we imagine Roughead wearing a dressing gown and a velvet cap, examining the grisly relic with a bone-handled magnifying glass—contains in full that collision …

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