Monday, April 23, 2012

Murder Most Foul

I will start this post with an admission of faulty memory; I had thought the phrase "Murder most foul" came from Shakespeare's Macbeth. It's actually from Hamlet, Act 1, Scene V, where the Melancholy Dane converses with the ghost of his murdered father, King Hamlet – who is always called "Ghost" in the stage directions:

Ghost: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.

Hamlet: Murder!

Ghost: Murder most foul, as in the best it is; but this most foul, strange and unnatural.

You have to love the line: Murder most foul, as in the best it is. A notion, I believe, that has guided the minds, pens and keyboards of most crime writers.

I suppose I can be forgiven the slip, though. About a hundred years ago – 56 years, actually, in the spring of 1956, my final year of high school in St. John's - I participated in a stage production of Macbeth put on by the St. John's Players. I played (misplayed, really) the role of Ross, thankfully a small role that allowed me to do no real harm to the production. Memory records that my fake beard did not fall off – I was sixteen and shaving was more a fond hope than a daily ritual. Memory does record that Macbeth's beard did take a southward plunge on opening night, where it lay on the stage floor like some lifeless rodent. Memory also records that Ross was the only notable at the famous banquet scene, other than Macbeth himself, who too obviously saw Banquo's ghost rise up from under the dining table. I think it was the avalanche of ketchup on his spectral person that captured my gaze.

There is a dialogue going on now, on LinkedIn, on the whys and wherefores of writing about murder, when there are so many other, and nicer, things to write about. I cannot imagine that there is a single good answer to the question. Which question was posed at the first reading I did after my novel, Undertow, came out in December of 2002. I replied that I wrote about murder, in the context of an historical  mystery, because I was able to. I had tried writing in other genres, but without success. I never seemed to get anywhere. But when I placed the body of an American Army corporal on a street in St. John's in 1943 – there were thousands of American troops in St. John's during the Second World War – the rest of the story flowed fairly well. I had more or less found my niche, gruesome though it is.

It's still a good question, though, and seems to come up regularly at gatherings of mystery writers. But I still think it's interesting – maybe even odd – that so many apparently normal and healthy people enjoy reading about murder. There's nothing very new in that, obviously. People have been "enjoying" stories about murder for centuries; eons, almost.

Back to Shakespeare, again. His plays are full of murder and monstrous violence. (So is the Bible, I am told, but I will stay away from that.) Elizabethan audiences were at least as bloodthirsty as our current generation of readers and playgoers, perhaps even more so.They did live in violent times, after all, with Protestants and Catholics taking turns slaughtering each other in the name of their all-knowing and benevolent God.

Consider the following examples from some of Will's plays:

Unjustly accused of adultery, Desdemona is smothered to death by her jealous husband, Othello;

Emilia (Othello) is stabbed by her husband, Iago, when she reveals his role in the plot against Desdemona;

Lady Macduff is chased down and slaughtered offstage by Macbeth's henchmen, and her son is also murdered;

Hamlet stabs his stepfather Claudius with a poisoned rapier and then forces him to drink from a poisoned goblet;

A murderer hired by the evil Edmund (King Lear) hangs Lear's youngest daughter, Cordelia, in her cell;

Titus Andronicus is one of Shakespeare's most blood-spattered plays; murder and mutilation abound. Towards the play's end, Titus has baked Tamora's two murdered sons into a meat pie and feeds it/them to Tamora and Saturninus; after which Titus stabs Tamora to death; and in turn is himself killed by Saturninus.

And so on.

Hamlet, as most readers will know, is one of the most gruesome of Shakespeare's plays, the stage littered with the bodies of the violently dead in the final scenes. But there is a brilliant and moving counterpoint, delivered in the farewell speech by Horatio:

Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

That pretty much makes up for the preceding carnage; well, almost, anyway.

All of that having been said/written, I am not entirely comfortable with murder as popular entertainment, even if I play a small part in that. Murder is a very grim business, after all. In real life, it is not easy to find much joy in it. Here in Canada, supposed land of bland, we have very recently had our morning and evening papers – and TV screens – filled to overflowing with murder trials.

Just now, we are working our grim way through the Victoria Stafford murder trial in London, Ontario. Tori Stafford was an eight-year old girl abducted from her school in Woodstock, Ontario in April, 2009. She was later repeatedly raped, and then bludgeoned to death with a claw hammer. Her body was finally disposed of in a plastic garbage bag.


The trial of one of the accused, Michael Rafferty, will go on for some time yet. His accomplice, Terri-Lynne McClintic, has already been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Last year, The Canadian news media were saturated with the trial of the murders of four women, three of them very young, in what is described as an "honour killing". What have become known as the "Shafia Family Murders" took place on June 30, 2009 in Kingston, Ontario. Three Shafia sisters, Zainab (19), Sahar (17), and Geeti (13), along with their "aunt" – actually their father's first wife – Rona Amir Mohammed (50), were found dead inside a car submerged in a lock of the Rideau Canal near Kingston.


                                                               The Victims


                                                                 The Perpetrators

The girls' parents, Mohammed Shafia and his wife Tooba Mohammed Yahya, and their son (the girls' brother), Hamed (20), were tried and each found guilty on four counts of first-degree murder. The family, who lived in Montreal but were originally from Afghanistan, had a long history of abusive incidents, with the father angry that his daughters had violated his "honour" by wanting a more independent and western-style life.

I believe we are all of us, in the writing trade, aware of the differences between our own fictional murders, and the "real thing", two examples of which are given above.

There is a passage in Undertow where I attempted to write about this. My Inspector Stride is talking with his friend, and former partner in rum-running, Jean-Louis Marchand, a French National. After a lavish dinner in Stride's flat, Marchand makes a comment on crime and justice:

"Justice is a capricious bitch. That is not a blindfold that she wears, I often think. It is really the mask of a brigand."

"Sometimes," Stride said. "Sometimes, it does seem that way."

"This case you have, Eric. A murder. Tragic, of course, but interesting for you, n'est-ce pas?"

"Yes, murder can sometimes be interesting."

"More often it is only banal and ugly," Marchand said.

And I will leave it at that.

For now.

And a P.S. to an earlier post wherein I lamented the difficulty of finding books by Paul Winterton, who wrote under three pseudonyms: Andrew Garve, Roger Bax, and Paul Somers. Browsing in a local Chapters bookstore yesterday, I came upon a collection of older mysteries, newly published under the imprint, Crime Classics. Two of Winterton's novels were included: Blueprint for Murder by Roger Bax, and NoTears for Hilda by Andrew Garve. I scooped up both of them, along with a third novel, All the Lonely People by Martin Edwards, a Harry Devlin Mystery. Edwards is a writer new to me. Three books for $10.00. A "steal", really, and therefore irresistible.


Hannah Dennison said...

A very thought provoking post. And since I try to "find the funny" in murder ... one that is extremely sobering to me. Very well done!

Charlotte Hinger said...

Tom, I've wondered about the same issue--watching, reading, writing about crime. In the 1800s in Kansas, hangings were public events. Settlers brought their families and had a picnic. said...
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synge lucia said...

An extremely believed invoking publish. As well as since i have attempt to "find the actual funny" within homicide... one which is very sobering in my experience. Perfectly carried out!

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