Murder as a Fine Art, by Carolyn Wells 1913
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The exact point of view is perfectly set forth in De Quincey's essay with that title. I wish I might quote it all here. The delicious satire that is yet sound philosophy, is marred by separation from its context.
But a few passages may be given:
"People begin to see that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed—a knife—a purse—and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature. Mr. Williams has exalted the ideal of murder to all of us; and to me, therefore, in particular, has deepened the arduousness of my task. Like Aeschylus or Milton in poetry, like Michelangelo in painting, he has carried his art to a point of colossal sublimity; and, as Mr. Wordsworth observes, has in a manner 'created the taste by which he is to be enjoyed.' To sketch the history of the art, and to examine its principles critically, now remains as a duty for the connoisseur, and for judges of quite another stamp from his Majesty's Judges of Assize."
This is the right spirit in which to read of a murder in Detective Fiction. De Quincey goes on to say:
"The murder was a sad thing, no doubt, very sad; but we can't mend it. Therefore, let us make the best of a bad matter; and, as it is impossible to hammer any thing out of it for moral purposes, let us treat it aesthetically, and see if it will turn to account in that way. Such is the logic of a sensible man, and what follows? We dry up our tears, and have the satisfaction, perhaps, to discover that a transaction, which, morally considered, was shocking, and without a leg to stand upon, when tried by principles of Taste, turns out to be a very meritorious performance."
Still in his whimsical mood, De Quincey thus goes back to Ancient History:
"The first murder is familiar to you all. As the inventor of murder, and the father of the art, Cain must have been a man of first-rate genius. All the Cains were men of genius. Tubal Cain invented tubes, I think, or some such thing. But, whatever might be the originality and genius of the artist, every art was then in its infancy, and the works must be criticized with a recollection of that fact. Even Tubal's work would probably be little approved at this day in Sheffield; and therefore of Cain (Cain senior, I mean) it is no disparagement to say, that his performance was but so-so. Milton, however, is supposed to have thought differently. By his way of relating the case, it should seem to have been rather a pet murder with him, for he retouches it with an apparent anxiety for its picturesque effect:—
'Whereat he inly raged; and, as they talk'd,
Smote him in the midriff with a stone
That beat out life: he fell; and, deadly pale
Groan'd out his soul with gushing blood effused.'—
—Paradise Lost, Book XI."
Following history's list, we learn that:
"The finest work of the seventeenth century is, unquestionably, the murder of Sir Edmondbury Godfrey, which has my entire approbation. In the grand feature of mystery, which in some shape or other ought to color every judicious attempt at murder, it is excellent."
And another excellent affair is mentioned:
"The King of Sweden's assassination, by-the-by, is doubted by many writers, Harte amongst others; but they are wrong. He was murdered; and I consider his murder unique in its excellence; for he was murdered at noon-day, and on the field of battle — a feature of original conception, which occurs in no other work of art that I remember. No unpracticed artist could have conceived so bold an idea as that of a noonday murder in the heart of a great city. It was no obscure baker, gentlemen, or anonymous chimney-sweeper, be assured, that executed this work.
"With respect to the Williams' murders, the sublimest and most entire in their excellence that ever were committed, I shall not allow myself to speak incidentally. Nothing less than an entire lecture, or even an entire course of lectures, would suffice to expound their merits. Indeed, all of these assassinations may be studied with profit by the advanced connoisseur. They are all of them exemplaria, model murders, pattern murders of which one may say,—
'Nocturna versate manu, versate diurna,'
Continuing this remarkable essay, we come upon this: "But it is now time that I should say a few words about the principles of murder, not with a view to regulate your practice, but your judgment: as to old women, and the mob of newspaper readers, they are pleased with anything, provided it is bloody enough, but the mind of sensibility requires something more. First, then, let us speak of the kind of person who is adapted to the purpose of the murderer; secondly, of the place where; thirdly, of the time when, and other little circumstances.
"As to the person, I suppose that it is evident that he ought to be a good man; because, if he were not, he might himself, by possibility, be contemplating murder at the very time; and such 'diamond-cut-diamond' tussles, though pleasant enough where nothing better is stirring, are really not what a critic can allow himself to call murders. I could mention some people (I name no names) who have been murdered by other people in a dark lane; and so far all seemed correct enough, but on looking farther into the matter, the public have become aware that the murdered party was himself, at the moment, planning to rob his murderer, at the least, and possibly to murder him, if he had been strong enough. Whenever that is the case, or may be thought to be the case, farewell to all the genuine effects of the art.
* * * * * *
"The subject chosen ought to be in good health: for it is absolutely barbarous to murder a sick person, who is usually quite unable to bear it. On this principle, no tailor ought to be chosen who is above twenty-five, for after that age he is sure to be dyspeptic.
* * * * * *
"So much for the person. As to the time, the place, the tools, I have many things to say, which at present I have no room for. The good sense of the practitioner has usually directed him to night and privacy. Yet there have not been wanting cases where this rule was departed from with excellent effect."
As might be supposed, this essay of De Quincey's brought forth various criticisms. To these he replies in another essay:
"A good many years ago, the reader may remember that I came forward in the character of a dilettante in murder. Perhaps dilettante is too strong a word. Connoisseur is better suited to the scruples and infirmity of public taste. I suppose there is no harm in that, at least. A man is not bound to put his eyes, ears, and understanding into his breeches-pocket when he meets with a murder. If he is not in a downright comatose state, I suppose he must see that one murder is better or worse than another, in point of good taste. Murders have their little differences and shades of merit, as well as statues, pictures, oratorios, cameos, intaglios, or what not.
"I am for morality, and always shall be, and for virtue, and all that; and I do affirm and always shall (let what will come of it), that murder is an improper line of conduct, highly improper; and I do not stick to assert, that any man who deals in murder, must have very incorrect ways of thinking, and truly inaccurate principles; and so far from aiding and abetting him by pointing out his victim's hiding place, as a great moralist of Germany declared it to be every good man's duty to do, I would subscribe one shilling and sixpence to have him apprehended, which is more by eighteen pence than the most eminent moralists have hitherto subscribed for that purpose. But what then? Everything in this world has two handles, Murder, for instance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle (as it generally is in the pulpit, and at the Old Bailey); and that, I confess, is its weak side; or it may also be treated aesthetically, as the Germans call it — that is, in relation to good taste. Genius may do much, but long study of the art must always entitle a man to offer advice. So far I will go — general principles I will suggest. But as to any particular case, once for all I will have nothing to do with it. Never tell me of any special work of art you are meditating — I set my face against it in toto. For, if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man has dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time."
* * * * *
Though written in a whimsical vein, these observations of De Quincey apply definitely to the Murder Fanciers of Detective Fiction.
Shakespeare's murders are calmly accepted on the stage, and our children are placidly told Who Killed Cock Robin because these killings are not true, but are merely the manufactures of art.
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