Thursday, February 10, 2011

The So-Called Art of Murder

"Murder, for instance,is quite overrated, aesthetically. I am assured by persons on whose judgment I rely, and whose experience has, presumably, been wide, that the feelings of a murderer are of a quite futile character. What could be stupider than kicking to pieces, like a child, a machine you know nothing about, the variety and ingenuity of which should keep any imaginative person watching it delightedly day and night? Say we are acquainted with such a human machine; let us say, a rich uncle. A human engine is inexhaustible in its possibilities; however long and unrewarding has been our knowledge of the avuncular machine, we never know that the very moment that we lift the assassin's knife the machine is not about to grind forth some exquisite epigram which it would make life worth living to hear, or even, by some spasm of internal clockwork, produce a cheque. To kill him is clearly prosaic.

From On Cheapness (The Apostle and the Wild Ducks)

I heartily agree with this; and it is one of the main reasons I don't want to read any more Father Brown stories, after ploughing my way (almost) through the first two collections. At least Chesterton had a mercenary motive for writing them, since Father Brown was his main money-spinner, and provided much-needed funds for his other projects (such as publishing GK's Weekly).

Murder is certainly dramatic, but it could hardly be more crude. What a condemnation of the species it is, that of all the actions of the human being-- how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable!-- the one we find most enthralling is the cessation of all its powers. There is an infinite amount of things a man can get up to; a corpse never gets up to anything much; but we find the second more interesting.

Fans of the detective story-- that degraded contingent-- will reply that it is not the murder they find interesting, but the problem of how it was done, and by whom, and using which implement, and whether it was in the conservatory or the library. I'm not persuaded by this. Because if it was true, why would our whodunnit concentrate so obsessively upon homicide? Why can't we have puzzles about stolen chocolate bars and leaked examination papers?

Insofar as I enjoy any detective stories, those are the ones I enjoy. I remember Ireland's Own, the only Irish magazine I can bear to read, had a character called Miss Flanagan (who was old but a long way from losing her marples). The Miss Flanagan Investigates serial rarely dealt with stabbings and clubbings, devoting itself rather to missing bicycles and mysterious absences from home. I prefer it over Cracker any day.

In just the same way, who wouldn't agree that the best pages of a Sherlock Holmes story come before any misdeed occurs, or is anticipated? The idle conversation between Holmes and Watson, or Holmes's observation of a visitor's poorly-pressed trousers, are far more entertaining than a poisonous snake climbing down a bell-pull.


  1. One of my favourite Holmes stories has no murder in it at all, The Adventure of the Yellow Face. It ends with a wonderful scene where the principal protagonist responds to the shock of discovering that he's the stepfather of a mixed-race child.

    "...when [Munro's] answer came it was one of which I love to think. He lifted the little child, kissed her, and then, still carrying her, he held his other hand out to his wife and turned towards the door. 'We can talk it over more comfortably at home,' said he. 'I am not a very good man, Effie, but I think that I am a better one than you have given me credit for being.'"

  2. That story gave me the spooks when I was younger. But then, a mysterious face at a window always does.

    I was excited by the idea of the Red-Headed League until I found out (what a disappointment!) it was just a cover story; I liked the idea of the missing turkey (or was it a goose?) in The Blue Carbuncle before-- yawn-- it turned out to contain a priceless gem.