Monday, January 31, 2011

*Classic Crimes, by William Roughead

NYRB Classics
560 pp

Classic Crimes really appeals to my deeply-entrenched fascination with true crimes of the past, and was such a pleasure to read that its 560 pages just flew by in no time.  Rarely does a book of nonfiction this large maintain my interest so intently, but for some reason, I hated having to put this one down. And it just goes to show that crime hasn't really changed over the centuries -- the prime motives of murder (sex and money) are timeless.  Before I even get to the end here, let me just say that if you are at all interested in famous crimes from times gone by, especially from the UK, this is a book you should consider reading.

The author of this book is William Roughead (1870-1952) a lawyer in Scotland who was quite well known for his interest in the history of crime.  He was a contributor to the Notable Scottish Trials and Notable British Trials series, friend to Henry James, and in one famous case of the era (that of Oscar Slater), he joined such notables as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in trying to get justice for what they considered to be a trumped-up case and an incorrect verdict that sentenced a man to death.  Roughead does more than chronicle the cases in this book; at many junctures he injects his wit and sarcasm and tries to appeal to his readers' sense of justice in cases where the guilty walked away and the innocent were wrongly convicted. Using the official court documents of each case, he takes the reader through the commission of the crime (with all personalities involved), witness statements, the arrest and trial, and the aftermath.  Roughead's version of true crime reporting is nothing at all like some of today's accounts that promise titillating tattle, you know, the ones with the catchy titles and lurid covers -- he offers  facts, his opinions and manages to keep the reader interested throughout. As Luc Sante, who introduces this book, notes:
He is relentlessly discursive, his asides convincingly sounding as if they are being whispered along a bench, and digressive too. But his sense of timing is superb: though he'll take the reader on a walk through the past or through the neighborhood, he will always be back in time for the crucial next question.
There are an even dozen cases in this book, all of which occurred in Scotland, some of which have been well publicized via books, television, and movies, including:

  • The case of Madeleine Smith, who was tried for murder in 1857 after her secret lover had been poisoned.
  • The case of Constance Kent, whose half-brother (the son of her recently-widowed father and his new wife, the former governess) went missing one night and was found dead in the morning
  • The case of Florence Bravo, a young newlywed whose husband died mysteriously from poisoning one night
  • The case of Oscar Slater, who was convicted of a brutal murder solely on the basis of a pawn ticket and mistaken identity
and some I'd not heard of before, including

  • The case of Katherine Nairn in the 18th century, suspected of murdering her husband by poison
  • The case of Deacon Brodie in the 18th century, respected gentleman by day, burglar by night
  • The case of Jessie McLachlan, who was supposed to have killed one of the maids of the Fleming household, and laid the blame on the eldest member of the Fleming family
  • The case of Dr. Pritchard, whose wife and mother-in-law both died under very mysterious circumstances, probably at his hands
  • One of my favorite cases in this book, "The Arran Murder," in which two men on holiday climb up a mountain and only one comes down
  • An incredibly twisted case known here as "The Ardlamont Mystery," involving the mysterious shooting death of a young man and a rather slimy con man of sorts
  • The case of John Donald Merrett, who went off to a dance hall while his mother was dying of a bullet to the head
Classic Crimes is a treasure trove of true crime and treachery, one of the best I've ever read.  I found myself heading to the Internet on several occasions to see if there were other books, television dramas or movies based on any of these cases and threw a few into my Netflix queue and onto my Amazon wishlist. On the negative side of my praise for this book, however, the language throughout is a bit stilted and may turn many readers off.  Again, by Luc Sante:
You can open the book anywhere and light on a random sentence -- for instance, 'The secret marauder came and went without a trace, save for the empty till, the rifled scrutoire, or the displenished plate-chest that testified to his visitation...' The usages herein may often send the reader to the dictionary, sometimes even to the OED.
However, if you can get used to Roughhead's manner of speech, the cases themselves will provide you with hours of entertainment, if true crimes of the past are one of your interests. Highly recommended.


  1. It sounds interesting, but I don´t read much non-fiction about crime - and I just got through a long one last week so it is definitely not on right now.

  2. I rarely read true crime myself, unless it comes from the past. Current true crime really doesn't do much for me.

    I'll come see what you just got through here shortly. Nice to hear from you again.


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