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Make us bite

The trial of Madeleine Smith from Look and Learn, 1974
The trial of MaThe trial of Madeleine Smith from Look and Learn, 1974 deleine Smith from Look and Learn, 1974

“I love a good murder.” In my youth, the somewhat questionable truth of this was there to see every weekend, when my father opened the News of the World and turned with relish to a headline along the lines of “Torso found in Wood” or “He stabbed his beloved through the Heart”.

William Roughead was born in Edinburgh in 1870. When his father drowned off the Isles of Scilly in 1887, the family business, a clothiers and outfitters on Prince’s Street, was sold. William began his studies in law at Edinburgh University, but did not graduate. He had been articled to a law firm in George Street, and, having a comfortable income from the sale of the business, had no need to follow the normal route into a professional career.

The story of a real-life murder is somehow translated into a fascinating no-man’s-land between fiction and fact when we see it in print or on screen. There we can appreciate its qualities, as though in a moral vacuum. George Orwell understood this paradox, writing, in “Decline of the English Murder”, that the word “pleasure” was best suited to this popular cultural phenomenon.

He even suggested a canon: “Our great period in murder, our Elizabethan period so to speak, seems to have been between roughly 1850 and 1925, and the murderers whose reputation has stood the test of time are the following: Dr Palmer of Rugeley, Jack the Ripper, Neill Cream, Mrs Maybrick, Dr Crippen, Seddon, Joseph Smith, Armstrong, and Bywaters and Thompson”.

What Orwell was describing was the feeling in general, middlebrow readers, for the “criminous” in life, a term we owe to a Scots lawyer with a passion for “horrible murder”.

William Roughead made his first real impact on the world of criminology in 1919 with The Evil that Men Do, a book replete with narratives of crime and courtroom dramas. “I believe that the study of criminology is tantamount to the study of mankind”, Roughead said. “The majority of mankind are wrong ‘uns.”

Charmed attention

His acuity in the field had already attracted praise from his friend Henry James, who wrote in 1913 to thank Roughead for sending a copy of an earlier volume on Scots trials. “Most interesting and attaching is the book which has held my attention charmed, and your manner of presentation is so strong and skilful that one casts about with open appetite for more such outstanding material into which you may be moved to bite – or at least to make us bite.” This sums up the appeal of a writer many regard as the master of true crime.

In a productive career – from Rhyme without Reason, in 1901, to the posthumously published volume Tales of the Criminous (1956) – Roughead became much admired as an editor of casebooks, having been hired by the firm of his friend Harry Hodge, in Edinburgh, to work on some of the first volumes in the series Notable Scottish Trials. Roughead thought there were specific insights to be gleaned from historical cases (such as the Ireland Eye case of 1852, where a small uninhabited island off the coast of Howth became the stage for a mysterious murder), and these helped him find ever more compelling ways of understanding and expressing the many natures of transgression.

Of the trial of the “prince of poisoners”, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, he comments wryly that the accused “excused the murder of his young sister-in-law on the ground that ‘she had such thick ankles’”. He was a rare instance, in a genre more often known for ham and clunk, of a true stylist. Plot, though, was never sacrificed, and was always underpinned by an attempt to fathom motivation.

Social standing

Of the infamous Madeleine Smith case, in which Smith, a Glasgow socialite, was tried for the murder of Pierre Emile L’Angelier, a man of lower social standing with whom she was having an affair, Roughead points out: “It is always assumed that if she made his chocolate too strong, her purpose was to get possession of the famous letters by which he was blackmailing her. But these, being locked up in his lodgings, were equally irretrievable by her whether he were dead or alive”.

Roughead was especially adept at the long essay, which gave him scope to give a succinct account of the facts of the crime, a neat enquiry and a summing-up. He elucidated all the elements of the story, taking in countless details uncovered by legal professionals and investigators. We see this in the case, in 1934, of Jeannie Donald, tried for the murder of the eight-year-old Helen Priestly, who lived in the same Aberdeen tenement block as Donald and her family. Donald was acquitted. After an exhaustive account of the trial, Roughead sums up:

The bloody deed is done; consciousness returns; one gasping cry, and by the ensuing Sickness the little victim is silenced forever.

- Times Literary Supplement


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