Murder Most Banal

After reading Zola’s La Bete Humaine, I must admit that I’m really starting to wonder about this. Virtually all the main characters either consider or resort to murder at some point in the story as a solution to whichever problem is at the forefront of their mind at that moment. For example, Severine dislikes her husband (who has already murdered Gironcourt and got away with it) and wishes to marry Jacques, so she suggests that Jacques murder her husband as he is an obstacle to their happiness. Jacques’ aunt is murdered by her husband so he can steal her inheritance of 1,000 francs. Jacques’ cousin Flore murders scores of people by rigging a train crash because she is jealous of Jacques’ relationship with Severine and wants her out of the way so she can marry Jacques.

And so on. As the killer in Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem would note, there is no style to these murders. They are common and unartistic and beneath the serious killer. One would hope that Peter Ackroyd was being tongue in cheek there, because that’s quite a controversial mindset to promote.

I was struck as I finished the book at how easily everyone simply killed people who got in their way; although it’s very possible that there were elements of northern France in the late nineteenth century who really did behave in such a way, but it really didn’t feel realistic to me – although that said, I realise that it may be an all too realistic representation of life in somewhere like a favela in Rio, for example. In those environments life is all too cheap, so it doesn’t really do to get wrapped up about it.

I suppose reading this so close to finishing Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem has made me realise that in certain quarters, murder is (if you like) a craft, and there is a special satisfaction to creating a masterpiece; even if that masterpiece happens to be a corpse. My years of studying old issues of True Detective have taught me, if nothing else, that there are many serial killers who believe that they are artists and their murders are works of art; and we can see the same thought process in series such as Hannibal. You have those murderers who see value in their work and those who just view it as a means to an end.

Forensic psychology isn’t really my thing, but I did find this aspect interesting. I’m fairly sure there’s a thesis in here somewhere for someone much better placed than me to write it. What do you think?

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A Mistranslated Title?

I’ve mentioned previously that I do like reading the novels of Emile Zola. This will be the fifth one I’ve read (not counting re-reads) and is, I think, one of his best known. However, because I can’t read French I have had to pick up a translation and the title has got me all confused. The novel I’m reading is La Bête Humaine, which my (Penguin) edition has translated as The Beast Within. This is entirely acceptable, and I’m sure there is no problem with it. It’s just that to me, the title translates as The Human Beast which, in the context of the story, seems to make more sense.

The crux of the story (about which I will probably write more later) is that of murder on the railways, and in particular, the mind of a murderer; but I would also like to explore other characters and their mindsets because I think it illustrates (my translation of) the title really very well.

Roubaud, a stationmaster, kills the man who molested his wife when she was younger in a fit of jealous rage. I’m not sure, actually, that it is jealousy – perhaps righteous anger, but still – and realising that he has means, motive and opportunity, arranges the murder. The victim, Galincourt, a wealthy company director and senior lawyer, is a well-known sexual predator whose crimes have effectively been covered up as a result of his position. Don’t be surprised if this sounds HORRIBLY familiar, because it did to me too. Unfortunately for Roubaud, the murder is witnessed by Jacques Lantier, a young engine driver who suffers from homicidal delusions and had just tried to rape and murder his godmother’s daughter (whose sister was raped and murdered by Galincourt).

Traditionally, it is Lantier who is considered the Beast of the title, but I think there are different meanings to the word which Zola plays with. Certainly Galincourt’s behaviour is beastly, and Lantier’s fits of mania hint at a lack of rational control which at the time was considered to (to quote an old friend) “separate us from the animals”. In the fullness of time, however, we see Lantier go on to kill his mistress, then his engineer and finally himself in a plot that twists and turns like a good 19th century classic – which, of course, this is.

I’m only about halfway through at the moment, and so far only Galincourt is dead, but the senior judiciary have already conspired to ensure that the case doesn’t go to trial to protect the deceased’s reputation. Zola was well known for his assertions against the State for injustice – he was a famous supporter of the accused in the Dreyfus affair – so this is hardly surprising. What surprises me is how prescient it feels in the light of more modern examples of Galincourt’s behaviour. Naming no names, because I refuse to give them publicity.

Looking at all the characters and the behaviour they illustrate, I can’t help but think my translation of the book is the right one. I’ll let you know when I’ve finished it.

The Hood Maker

Not that I usually give a fig about being in fashion, but it does feel a bit strange to see Philip K Dick, one of my favourite SF authors, being so popular again. His star seems to rise and wane with alarming regularity – popular in the eighties, less so in the nineties, barely remembered in the noughties, starting to come back in the tens. Much as I like his novels, it’s his short stories that I really admire because they often deal with ideas and theories that probably couldn’t carry a hundred thousand words without veering off into lunacy.

I really like The Hood Maker, the first of his stories to be broadcast as part of Channel 4’s Electric Dreams series, which gave me the idea of reading all the original stories in the order that they were shown – partly because I prefer reading to viewing but also because I have the collected stories somewhere and it seemed a great excuse to dig them out. So before anyone asks – no, I haven’t watched the series and I probably won’t either, so I’m not necessarily aware of any differences between the two.

The central conceit of The Hood Maker is that people’s thoughts are no longer their own; the state employs telepathic mutants (“teeps”) to scan one’s unconscious thoughts and report any disloyalty. The state’s justification is that if one has nothing to hide, one has nothing to worry about. But some people do feel that there are secrets worth keeping and it isn’t long before strange alloy headbands (the “hoods” of the title) are being received by notable government employees which prevent the teeps from reading their thoughts. The state, unsurprisingly, drafts legislation banning them, but the story ends before the keynote vote (and reveals how it will fare).

Dick was, I suppose, something of a typical Californian libertarian; he was also quite paranoid and so the idea of the government spying on him using telepaths was something he revisited regularly – I suppose the best known version is Minority Report, also originally a short story, where people are arrested for crimes before getting the chance to commit them by (essentially) thought police. It raises questions about whether or not people have the right to keep secrets and the level to which a state can erode civil liberties before it becomes totalitarian. Given that the overwhelming majority of governments run on secrets – otherwise intelligence services wouldn’t be required – you can see why they would be concerned about “disloyalty”, for example. Whether or not it’s ever likely to happen is anyone’s guess – I’m fairly sure that people who have lived through the whims of a totalitarian regime before the fall of Communism would be able to vouch for Dick’s veracity here.

It’s a clever story, and it doesn’t seem dated – a flaw which has befallen a few of his novels, if I’m honest. It has elements of science fiction and spy thriller, which makes me wonder if there is such a thing as spy-ence fiction. On which note, I’ll move on to the next story….

The Cask of Amontillado

Another famed story that I’m not keen on. It’s really just a very sadistic murder told from the point of view of the murderer. So why is it so celebrated?

My assumption is simply that it’s the nature of the murder that is what fascinates – Fortunato is buried alive in a wall in a ruined crypt in an ancient (and unnamed) Italian city around the time of carnival. This was well known as a medieval punishment; Countess Erzebet Bathory was walled up in her rooms of Castle Cactice after being found guilty of the murders of numerous local girls. In fact, it was a common belief that the local gods, elves, sprites and fairies required a blood sacrifice to promote the success of a new building and dogs or cats were frequently dumped into the foundations for this reason.

It’s just that if it’s read alongside The Tell Tale Heart and The Fall of the House of Usher, it strikes me that there is a progression in the burial theme here. In the first story, the victim may well be dead when the killer smothers him, but he is certainly deceased by the time he is dismembered and buried under the floorboards. In the second story, Madeline Usher is alive when she is entombed but dies soon after, killing her brother when she reappears. And in the third story, Fortunato is very much alive when he is bricked up in his niche. Being buried alive was something that terrified Poe, and consequently is a theme which appears frequently in his stories. I wonder if this was his way of trying to face down his fears, by being the person doing the burying rather than the person being buried.

It’s not a great story, if I’m honest. There are mistakes that even I spotted (and I’m not much of a drinker these days) which always irritates me. In the context of the other two stories that I have read recently, it did prove of interest though.

The Fall of the House of Usher

I feel slightly treacherous writing this. I love Edgar Allen Poe; and this was one of his most famous stories; but I hate it. I’m not sure if it’s a case of familiarity breeding contempt, but it bores the pants off me and I find the prose tedious in the extreme. So I forced myself to re-read it to see if I could spot what my problem with it was.

The plot, such as it is, is minimal, which may be why it’s been adapted a few times with varying degrees of success – there’s plenty of scope for inventive cinematography or staging. An unnamed man visits his old schoolfriend and his sister, who both live in their ancestral home which is excessively ancient but not yet ruinous. Both the friend (Roderick Usher) and his sister (Madeline) have been unwell and during the course of the tale, Madeline dies. Her corpse is interred in the family vault and Roderick lapses into distraught grief. The climax of the story is the revelation that Madeline was, in fact, buried alive and the House itself falls down during a terrific thunderstorm and takes both the Ushers with it.

And that’s it. Not a lot goes on for an awful lot of words, and I simply find it tedious. Poe’s prose can tend to the purple if he’s not careful – Ligeia is a stinker for this, but I love it regardless – but here he tends to padding, it seems to me. There are a lot of words and not a lot of story. Still, as it’s one of Poe’s most popular tales, I must be in the minority, but I’m okay with that. It’s an important story – I just don’t like it.

The Tell Tale Heart

I’m not sure how to approach this. Originally, I was going to explore how this short tale of a guilty conscience compared to a much longer examination of the same subject – Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment – but I can’t find my copy of Dostoyevsky and anyway, I had a much better idea. I still don’t know how to approach it, but at least I know what I want to talk about. Put bluntly, I want to explain why the narrator is wrong.

We are never told the names of any of the characters in the story, nor their relationships; all we know is the victim is considerably older than the narrator and has a “vulture’s eye”, a large blue eye that has clouded over, presumably from a cataract. The narrator himself declares loudly at the very beginning of the story that he is quite sane and couldn’t possibly be anything else – yet there is nothing in his behaviour to support this. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Sane people, for example, do not necessarily become fixated on an object to the point it renders them homicidal, but this is what happens to the narrator. He becomes obsessed with the old man’s vulture eye, and resolves to rid himself of it once and for all by killing his companion. He takes exceptionally good care of the old man, yet still spends a week spying on him at midnight, convinced that the eye is watching him. It isn’t, but since he’s convinced he’s not mad, there’s no problem is there?

On the last night, he accidentally startles his companion and ends up killing him by crushing him under the heavy bedstead, whereupon he dismembers the body and buries it under the floorboards. Unfortunately, a neighbour has heard a scream and reported it to the police; they come to investigate, but our narrator has done such a good job of hiding the body there is no possibility of him being discovered, is there? Except, of course, the heartbeat coming from under the floorboards…

No, I’m sorry, the narrator is quite mad. Which does render a lot of what he says to be completely untrustworthy. Did he take good care of his companion before his death or not? Did he really hear a heartbeat, was it death watch beetles or an auditory hallucination? We are not told, but left to speculate. I wonder how he’s finding the asylum…

Writing Difficult Posts

I try to get at least one blog post out of the books I read or the films I watch. Sometimes it’s easier than others, and I can often get two or even three if it’s an especially good book. Sometimes, though, it’s a real chore. Either I can’t think of anything to write or I can think of lots to write but have no idea how to approach it. An example of the former is a book I read called Walkaway by Cory Doctorow – I really enjoyed it, but I couldn’t get any blog posts out of it.

As an example of the latter, one of the things that Alias Grace reminded me of was the efforts made by the Earl of Longford to have Myra Hindley released from prison (the picture I’ve chosen is from the TV dramatisation, starring Jim Broadbent as Lord Longford and Andy Serkis as Ian Brady). Now Hindley’s crimes were on a whole different level to those of Grace Marks so it really was a Sisyphean task – but Grace has herself attracted the attention of prominent society people who are busy petitioning the government to have her released. This is the reasoning behind Dr Jordan’s arrival to analyse Grace’s mental health. If she is sane, then she has an opportunity for release, if she is suitably repentant. (Whether she is or not is another question entirely and not really for this post).

The trouble I have is – how do I approach this aspect of the novel? Any discussion of the Moors Murders has to be handled extremely sensitively and if I’m honest, I don’t think I can do that because I don’t remember the Murders themselves. I certainly don’t want to cause unnecessary distress but I think it’s interesting how certain notorious criminals tend to attract intelligent and well-meaning people intent on securing their freedom, and I would have liked to discuss that. I just don’t know how.

Also, the subject of the history of mental health treatments – and female mental health in particular – is massive and well beyond the scope of either this blog or my learning. I do find it an interesting subject and it is one that I may allude to again in the future but it really is too big for one post. The same argument applies to the history of medicine in general, as well as custodial punishment and Spiritualism – all big, interesting subjects but way too big to tackle in one go and all of which play a part in this novel.

So you see – although I may produce lots of blog posts there are some that don’t get written at all, no matter how good the book is; sometimes I just don’t have the necessary inspiration. It’s nobody’s fault and I’ve stopped beating myself up about it. As soon as I stop enjoying myself, I will stop.

Gothic but not Gothic – How Can That Be?

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood is a strange book. It’s a wonderful book, but it puzzles me. How can a book that contains most of the academically accepted tropes of Gothic literature and yet not feel remotely gothic? Admittedly, I am holding it up against Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem which is entirely unfair; yet compared to the “darkness” of the Ackroyd, the Atwood feels positively “sunny”. Let me explain.

One of the crucial gothic items is the remote location, isolating the action from the rest of the world. Naturally, a prison (and an asylum, as both feature in Alias Grace) is suitably isolating, especially since Grace spends much of her time in solitary confinement, apart from her visits from Dr Jordan. Grace is a young and attractive woman in a dire situation, in prison for life for murder; and Dr Jordan as the handsome young hero could be well placed as her “rescuer”, since his assessment of her mental state could be instrumental in garnering her release. The villains could be the doctors and warders who have controlled Grace since the start of her incarceration. There is a criminal element, if we believe that James McDermott led her astray after committing the murders himself, although the other inmates of the prison and asylum would also fit that criteria. The necessary supernatural elements beloved of all Gothic novelists could be suggested by the Spiritualism that the Governor’s wife turns to, as well as the hypnotists, mesmerists and other quacks that Grace has to deal with in an attempt to understand her mind.

So there we have all of the significant Gothic elements present and correct in a story that doesn’t feel remotely Gothic at all. I really don’t understand it, it should be up there with The Castle of Otranto or (latterly) Affinity and Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, but it isn’t. It doesn’t read like a Gothic even though all the elements are clearly there. Does that mean there’s something wrong with the novel, or with the academic definition of the genre?

Neither. I think the main reason why Alias Grace may have gothic elements but doesn’t read like a gothic is because it is based on a true story, and that is something that Gothic can never be. All true Gothic literature is fantastic, based on fantasy and imagination, and although the mind features strongly here, the non-fictional elements of the story will automatically render it un-Gothic.

Really and truly, who needs academic definitions anyway? It’s a great novel with lots of interesting things going on and it’s Gothic enough for me.

It’s Not What You Expect in a Murder Mystery

I’ve been swept away by Alias Grace, one of my favourite Margaret Atwood novels. It’s continuing my apparent theme of Victorian set murder mysteries, but this novel is based on true events, although the facts of what actually happened – much like Lizzie Borden’s parents – may never be known for certain. What is certain is that Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery were violently murdered in the house at which Grace Marks worked as a maid; she then fled the scene with a male servant, was tried and convicted, but the death penalty in her case was commuted because of her age – she was only sixteen at the time.

In common with most other females of her time, Grace was a skilful needlewoman; at one point she comments that she has been sewing since she was four, with the result that she has learned to do tiny stitches which those less experienced in sewing cannot do. It is also revealed that Grace is making a quilt for her employer, the wife of the prison governor and this reflects a theme which Atwood has hidden in plain sight in the novel. Each of the chapters of the book is named after a particular quilt pattern.

Women of North America (including Canada) during the 1800s did an awful lot of quilting; it was an economical way of using up fabric scraps and quilts were often made to form gifts for weddings or when family members left. As a result, the patterns came to represent memories or stories in much the same way as the language of flowers developed in Britain in the same period. It does seem to me, though, that this kind of quilt making was more popular with the pioneer women of the Americas than the stay at home women of Europe. Certainly, the advent of the sewing machine did much to revolutionise dressmaking and it may be that the skills required for hand quilting have died out.

Now I admit that I do my fair share of needlework, although it’s mostly embroidery or running repairs to whatever I happen to be wearing at the time, but it’s fair to say that I’ve only ever done quilting at school and that was a six inch square patch which was about as average as everyone else’s. It’s been fascinating to me to find out about the different quilt patch patterns and also to see how they reflect on the novel. It really wasn’t what I expected – but I’m delighted to have found it.

The Art of Murder

One of the recurring motifs in Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem is Thomas De Quincey’s famous essay “On Murder as One of the Fine Arts”. Even today this remains a controversial statement, but Ackroyd uses it skilfully to illustrate how the killer seeks public appreciation for what he does – the quest for an audience, the need for acclaim and so on. De Quincey would, I think, have appreciated the sentiment.

In his essay, De Quincey explores a mass killing which caused a sensation at the time, and has become known as the Ratcliff Highway Murders. It deals with the murder of the Marr family in December 1811 at a linen draper’s shop in Ratcliff Highway and, in particular, with the funeral procession of the man convicted of their murder, John Williams, who had committed suicide (and thereby forfeited burial in consecrated ground). Ackroyd bases the Limehouse Golem’s final murder on the Ratcliff Murders in such a way that it is presented as a copycat killing, or in the Golem’s mind, an homage to an artistic masterpiece. Many of the characters either read or are familiar with De Quincey’s essay which provides one of many links between the characters.

One of the things that I found interesting was how the body of the suicide was treated prior to its burial. It was traditional for many years to bury a suicide at a crossroads; and Williams certainly was. However, his corpse was paraded through the streets – pausing for fifteen minutes outside the draper’s shop in the Highway while a stake was hammered through his heart – to prove to the public that he was genuinely dead. This was something that I had only previously come across in vampire stories! I wonder if this was done because reports of the murder – in considerable detail – had spread widely and rapidly through the penny press, making it one of the first “sensational murders” to sell newspapers. It gripped the nation and remained a prominent story until Williams was buried.

By the 1880s, when Ackroyd’s novel is set, the popular press was a little more expensive but no less sensational; in fact, the Illustrated Police News quickly garnered a reputation as the most graphic and gruesome publication available. It was also one of the most popular, so it’s quite apparent where the public’s tastes lay. It came into its own during the Ripper murders, and virtually any book about Jack the Ripper that is available today will include illustrations taken from the pages of the Illustrated Police News. It was how the locals of Whitechapel found out what was going on in their midst.

I am old enough to remember the press furore during the late 1970s/early 1980s when West Yorkshire Police were hunting for a serial killer, nicknamed “The Yorkshire Ripper” by the tabloids. There was enough press coverage that I was able to compile a scrapbook showing how the investigation progressed – although I suspect it was more of an investigation by the media that I was illustrating. No idea what happened to it – it probably ended up in a bin somewhere, as it is a strange thing for a child to keep a scrapbook on, but I was never one for fairies or flower pressing. In later years, the press meted similar treatment to Fred and Rose West, Denis Nilsen and Beverley Allitt, although I’ve noticed it much less recently; perhaps we don’t have the same quality of serial killer any more – which brings us back to Thomas De Quincey’s original statement.

I am very reluctant to view murder as an art form. This is something that can only really be proposed by the killer themselves, and no matter how homicidal I may feel some days, a killer I am not. That said, I can see some of the logic behind it; the general public clearly like a good murder, as any crime novelist will attest. Maybe there is something in it after all?