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“Classic Crimes” by William Roughead New York Review of Books Classics 600 pages, $14.95 William Roughead, attorney, historian, writer, and editor, quite possibly was the best true-crime writer to have ever lived — not to mention one of the most astute legal observers in the annals of literature. Yet don’t be ashamed if you’ve never heard of this Scotsman. Few Americans have. Roughead, who lived from 1870 to 1952, is remembered only by a select circle of true-crime aficionados among us. Yet thanks to The New York Review of Books, which has recently begun republishing an impressive and growing series of long-forgotten masterpieces, Roughead’s work is once again accessible to American readers, and his name may soon be as recognizable as those of his friends and fellow spirits, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry James. Roughead was a unique combination — part courtroom reporter, part legal historian, part detective — with no easy parallel in today’s legal world. A crime buff practically from the cradle, Roughead wrote books about the trials he attended at Edinburgh from 1889 to 1949 and about the great historical cases of England and Scotland that had long left their mark on the popular imagination. But in addition to his full-length accounts of these cases, he also condensed many of the more interesting tales into short form for sale to magazines. “Classic Crimes” boasts 12 of these shorter pieces, along with an excellent introduction by Luc Sante, and makes both a pleasurable and educational addition to any library. “Classic Crimes” is soaked through with the atmosphere of 18th and 19th century Britain. Whether the case he’s chronicling dates from 1765 or 1926, Roughead makes us feel that he was present, so keen is his ability to conjure mood, set scene, and develop character. Roughead’s legal mind is everywhere on display. He starts each account with a long and careful summary of the pertinent facts, but as Sante comments, the purpose of this is merely to lay the groundwork for the report of the trial that follows: “A murder for [Roughead] is of interest chiefly insofar as it provides the premise for a rich, complex trial at which personalities can clash, unfold, reveal their wrinkles.” Roughead comments on the judges’ abilities, the parties’ memorable summations, the procedural moves and legal issues that cause courtroom scuffling, the accused’s demeanor in the dock, and most of all, on the quality and credibility of witnesses and evidence. Indeed, at times the pieces read like juicier versions of the most interesting cases you ever read in law school, and it’s hard to imagine the lay reader getting as much pleasure from Roughead’s evident devotion to the law as someone with legal training. Even today’s legal readers would benefit from a dab of knowledge about English legal history — explanatory footnotes being sorely lacking in this edition — if only to realize that, as distinct from the American system, British criminal courts gave judges much greater scope in directing and persuading the jury during instructions from the bench. Roughead helpfully explains other procedural niceties himself — the strange term “pannel” to refer to the accused, for instance, or the extraordinary practice, in the 18th century, of running capital cases straight through from the opening gavel to sentence, with no adjournment permitted even when proceedings lasted well over 48 consecutive hours. Lest this all begin to sound a bit too technical, let me hasten to add that Roughead had not only a keen appreciation of the law, but also a fine, sophisticated literary gift. Roughead is a master of suspense, but not in the conventional paperback-mystery sense of the word. Almost inevitably, he tips his hand within the first page, if not the first paragraph, as to the identity of both victim and criminal. It is a testimony to Roughead’s exquisite skill that each tale (with the exception of the too long “Ardlamont Mystery”) remains a true page-turner, the question being not so much “Whodunnit?” as “How did they do it, and why?” “The Sandyford Mystery,” for instance, kept me spellbound through 45 glorious pages, despite the fact that the only two people who could have had anything to do with crime, James Fleming and Jessie M’Lachlan, were fingered on page two. Here again, Roughead lets the mystery unfold as it would for a detective or courtroom observer. We learn about the strange crime scene, where both victim and floors are discovered partly washed and partly ghoulishly marked with blood, and about the strange behavior of the two principals during the days that followed the murder, long before we get to the stunning post-verdict courtroom denouement that fits together the pieces of the puzzle. If the book proves anything, it is that most criminals are very stupid indeed. There are no Raskolnikovs here to commit the perfect crime; no clever, Agatha Christie-esque murderers whose traces are so subtle that only the “little gray cells” of a Hercule Poirot can detect them; no need for Holmesian feats of deduction based on arcane trivia. No, in most cases, the murderers invariably do something shockingly obvious to incriminate themselves. There is the idiocy of Burke and Hare, who murdered in order to gain the substantial rewards handed out by Edinburgh’s medical establishment for corpses to be used in anatomy classes. There is John Laurie, alias Annandale, who went on a holiday hike with a new friend on a remote Scottish island and returned home alone, sailing back to the mainland wearing the dead man’s clothes. And inevitably, members of the constabulary are equally exposed to Roughead’s mockery. Some of his most venomous lines are saved for the members of the Glasgow police force, whose hideous bungling of “The Slater Case” led to the unjust imprisonment of Oscar Slater for almost 20 years. Roughead traffics in real life, not invented crime; and in real life, solutions are never pat. So he can’t resort to the standard tricks of the mystery story writer. Yet he doesn’t need to. Roughead is, simply, a great craftsman of the English language. Sante makes much of Roughead’s complex prose, which “represents the full range of the English language, circa 1880, as played on a cathedral organ with the largest possible number of manuals, pedals, and stops.” Sante finds parallels in Roughead’s style to that of the latter’s friend and admirer, Henry James, who shared with Roughead “complex characters, hopelessly tangled motives, labyrinths of nuance, arcane language, byzantine sentence structure.” I found the comparison to James hardly justified; legions of Ivy League and Oxbridge academics devote careers to parsing James’ impossibly convoluted sentences, while the only things difficult to decipher in Roughead are certain items of Scottish vocabulary. If you can read a 19th century legal case, you can read Roughead (with, perhaps, a few references to a handy dictionary). Rather, Roughead shares with another undeservedly underread British writer — the essayist Charles Lamb — a love of forgotten words, strange locutions, and antique constructions. Like Lamb, however, Roughead’s prose is not meant to be pompous or obfuscating, but instead provides comic relief. In the opening lines of “Constance Kent’s Conscience,” for example, there is no doubt that Roughead’s purpose is to mock the Victorian proprieties so obviously disrupted by the murder in question: “In the palmy days of the sixties … when skirts were wide, minds were narrow, and whiskers did prodigiously abound; when ladies veiled their graces in chignons and crinolines, and gentlemen, inexpressibly peg-topped, fortified their manly bosoms with barricades of beards; … when the outside of cup and platter received much attention, and due regard was had to the whitening of sepulchres, and whatever was ‘respectable’ was right; enfin, about that sincere and engaging period, there resided — to employ the appropriate contemporary term — at Road Hill House, near Trowbridge, in Wiltshire, one Mr. Samuel Saville Kent, gentleman.” To read a sentence of such magnificent silliness with a straight face does Roughead’s wit a serious injustice. My own sense is that the faux gravity of Roughead’s style is intentional, a way of adding much-needed levity to otherwise horrific tales. The tales, after all, are horrific — all but one describing murders. Unlike today’s writers, however, Roughead does not allow himself to linger over the grisly minutiae of the case more than is necessary to convey crucial evidence. Much more disturbing, in fact, are the descriptions of the characters of the criminals themselves. And here Roughead hits upon one of his more unique themes: the unbearable indifference of almost all the criminals profiled to the inhumanity of their actions. Roughead realized, long before prisons began to run courses in victim empathy, that for the most part his criminals could feel no remorse at all for their crimes. He details this again and again, usually as evidenced in conversations between prisoners and their clergymen — to whom it might well be expected that, had they any regrets, they would show them. Roughead quotes a letter from that beautiful poisoner Miss Madeliene Smith to her prison chaplain after her acquittal, assuring him that “I think it but fair I should let you know of my safe arrival at home. I am very well, and my spirits are good.” He tells how Burke, the body-seller, complained to his chaplain a few days before his execution that he’d never received payment for the last corpse he’d delivered to the anatomist (which corpse had been of course seized as evidence), explaining that he needed the money for a new coat to wear at his hanging, “as he wished on his last public appearance ‘to be respectable!’ “ As for the poor priest attending Dr. Pritchard, convicted for poisoning his wife and mother-in-law, one can only groan upon reading how in prison one day Pritchard “threw himself back, stretching out his hands, and said, ‘Do you know, Dr. Macleod, I now understand how Jesus suffered from the unbelief of men in His Word!’ ” — at which point the hapless Reverend Doctor burst into tears. The few criminals who do have regrets — especially poor Miss Constance Kent — receive some sympathy from Roughead, and he obviously takes pleasure in noting that at the time of Burke’s crime spree, “ it is satisfactory to know that he slept very badly and had horrible dreams.” Roughead’s contempt for the criminals, however, is rarely matched — explicitly at least — by a corresponding sympathy for the fate of their victims, an oversight I found rather odd. Indeed, he seems aware of the criticism, addressing it openly in “The Merrett Mystery,” in which a son shot his devoted mother to hide the fact that he’d been stealing from her bank account for months: “I have been taxed ere now by sentimental reviewers with hardness and lack of sympathy in my treatment of crime. In the present case one jurywoman, at an adjournment of the Court, was overheard to say to another, ‘I’m so sorry for that poor boy!’ … Yet throughout the seven days of the trial no one, so far as I am aware, expressed any sorrow for the ‘poor boy’s’ mother. Despite my alleged callosity of heart I should like to do so now.” Whence follows a description of poor Mrs. Merrett’s last days, lying in hospital with no idea how she got there or why, which would wring tears from a stone. At times like these, the reader is reminded of the sensibility that runs through the entire book: despite Roughead’s admitted obsession with crime, he is always more concerned with justice, with the fairness of the criminal process, with the punishment due the guilty and the mercy only belatedly shown the falsely accused, with the murderers who escape scot-free because they are protected by wealth and good name and with the poor or foreign who are charged in their stead. Read Roughead for this moral underpinning, if you like, or read him for the sheer delight of his playful prose, or read him for the addictive quality of the mysteries themselves, but by all means read him. His is in all likelihood the most enjoyable and fascinating book about the law that I’ve ever encountered, and one I look forward to rereading in years to come. Beth Johnston is a lawyer and writer who lives in Cambridge, Mass.

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