In Victoriana, I describe a piece of ink-black satire written by the Romanticist, Thomas De Quincey, entitled, “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts.”
“On Murder” purports to be a lecture given to a gentleman’s club whose members are connoisseurs of death. They appreciate killings that conform to Aristotle’s theory of catharsis in drama. “The final purpose of murder,” the lecturer says, “is precisely the same as that of tragedy in Aristotle’s account of it; viz. ‘to cleanse the heart by means of pity and terror.’” De Quincey wrote at length about the Ratcliffe Highway murders which occurred in Wapping, East London, in December of 1811. A sailor named John Williams slaughtered Timothy Marr, a shopkeeper, Marr’s wife, infant son, apprentice, and servant girl in their home at night. A week later he did the same to John Williamson, proprietor of the King’s Arms tavern, Williamson’s wife, and servant. Williams was arrested for the crimes and hanged himself while in police custody.
The entire chapter, “Modern Origins of the Mystery Genre,” can be read here on the blog.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the English novelist Dennis Wheatley feared the triumph of Communism was likely, not only on the Continent, but in Britain, where the Labour government was pursuing a socialist agenda marked by harsh austerity.
Wheatley’s horror at the prospect of a Communist coup in Britain led to his writing a remarkable document, which he titled, “A Letter to Posterity.” He composed it on November 20, 1947, the day Queen (then Princess) Elizabeth married Prince Philip of Greece. Wheatley looked back at the extraordinary technological changes that had taken place since his birth in 1897, and how these changes had ushered in mass politics and Orwellian repression.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, communication technology serves as a lever of both political and occult power in Wheatley’s description. He was writing before television, the internet, or social media, but the trajectory of his critique aims directly at them.
Wheatley buried the letter on the grounds of his estate, Grove Place, Hampshire, where it was discovered after he moved out in 1968. He writes:
When I was born electricity had been discovered but not yet adapted to practical every-day usage. London had no electric light or telephone system. Wireless, radio recording, broadcasting and gramophones were still unknown, and the petrol engine was still in its infancy. There were no motorcars; on the streets all vehicles were still horse-drawn, and for travelling further afield, the steam train as yet without corridor coaches, was the only means of transport. Liners and warships were generally steam propelled but a great part of the world’s sea-borne commerce was still carried in sailing ships; and the idea of travelling by air was as remote and unreal with us as it was with the Romans.
The electric age, having its infancy while I was a schoolboy, reaching maturity during the First World War, and becoming a dominant factor in all our lives from then on, has revolutionised thought wherever it has penetrated.
In the early years of the century the vast majority of the people of Europe and the United States—and even more so those of the less progressive areas of the world—formed their opinions from personal contact with their fellows. The more advanced among them were neither lacking in intelligence or political consciousness, but their attitude towards their rulers was governed in the main by (1) any new laws which affected their personal well-being and (2) the discussion of events at the centres of government—declarations of war, treaties of alliance, court scandals, royal marriages etc. these were often belatedly reported but formed the staple talk wherever men were gathered together; in the towns, in clubs and taverns, in the country, in public halls and inns. Thus, in those days, the ‘voice of the people’ was in fact the consensus of opinion arrived at after a vast number of free debates had taken place at every level of society and in all parts of the country, concerned.
This ‘voice’ was rarely raised; but when it was, rulers had good cause to tremble, and almost invariably, the result was a cessation of repression or a change of government; as the ‘voice’ was usually pregnant with both justice and commonsense.
But the ‘voice’ was stilled by the coming of the electro-machine age, as the new inventions enabled the professional politicians of all parties to get into direct touch with every community, however remote. First came the electric press, enabling a million or more copies of a newspaper to be run off in a single night—and enormously improved arrangements for distribution. Then came the wireless telegraph—which swiftly developed into radio, with a five times a day news service which, by means of a cheap receiving set, could be picked up in every home. And these were followed by the cinematograph which soon became one of the most insidious weapons for political propaganda.
The result was that instead of forming their opinions by quiet thought and reasoned discussion, the bulk of the people took them ready made (from so called ‘informed’ sources) and, in consequence, in the short space of the first two decades of the 20th century an almost unbelievable change took place in the mental attitude of the masses all over the world. The immense speeding up of means of communication brought the national and international picture so swiftly before them that it filled their thoughts to the exclusion of local conditions and the well-being of their own communities; political ideologies and abstract theories of government usurped in their minds the place which had previously been occupied by the selective prosperity of local industries and the prospects of crops. Worst of all, the masses came under the immediate influence of the political demagogues who labelled themselves as the ‘representatives of the people’, who held that ‘all men being equal’ all power should be vested in the majority rather than in the intelligent minority, as had been the case in the past.
Wheatley died in 1977 so he did not live to see the end of the Cold War. He would have been gratified by the collapse of the Soviet Union. But mass media is no less powerful a weapon today—and humans no less susceptible to it.
I have been watching the Bulldog Drummond films produced at Paramount Pictures in the late 1930s, adapted from H.C. McNeile’s pulp novels. The titular Captain Hugh Drummond is an English gentleman and veteran of the Great War who seeks out mystery and espionage on the home front in the interwar period.
The Paramount series features American actor John Howard as Drummond, who would go on to play Katherine Hepburn’s fiancée in The Philadelphia Story. John Barrymore appears in the first three films as Drummond’s ally, Colonel Nielson of Scotland Yard, occasionally disguised in elaborate Victorian stage makeup. The nine entries are low budget, but thoroughly enjoyable, comparable to Twentieth Century Fox’s Charlie Chan mysteries and Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series of the same period.
In adapting the source material the tone was altered. Howard’s Drummond owes as much to P.G. Wodehouse as he does to Sapper, an improvement. The Wodehousian influence ranges in degrees of subtlety.
Whereas Sapper’s Drummond is married to Phyllis Benton, the Paramount films are set on the eve of their postponed wedding, with the events of each plot once again interrupting the nuptials. They are finally married in the last film, Bulldog Drummond’s Bride. As a bachelor, Drummond becomes a sort of capable, two-fisted Bertie Wooster. His valet, played by E.E. Clive, stands in for Jeeves, with lines like “I endeavor to give satisfaction, Sir,” upon producing a much-needed pistol. Reginald Denny plays Drummond’s friend Algy Longworth as the sort of comedic fop who comprise the membership of the Drones Club.
And indeed, Wodehouse’s fictional London club features in the dialogue, implying a crossover literary universe.
In Arrest Bulldog Drummond (1938) we find Drummond rehearsing a speech for his bachelor party, addressed to “fellow members of the Drones Club.” Sapper’s Drummond is a member of the fictional Junior Sports Club in St James’s.
Wodehouse certainly read the Drummond books. Leave It to Psmith contains an extended parody of the first novel.
Sax Rohmer, writing in The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu (1913):
Imagine a person tall, lean and feline, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long magnetic eyes of the true cat green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect. Imagine that awful being and you have a mental picture of Dr Fu-Manchu.
Rohmer’s yellow peril tales were regularly serialized in America by Collier’s Weekly beginning in the 1910s. These editions were visualized by Collier’s excellent team of in-house illustrators: first Joseph Clement Coll, then John R. Flanagan. Both artists worked in pen and ink, delineating the lurid stories in a style somehow reminiscent of J.C. Leyendecker’s Arrow shirt collar advertisements as well as the future genre of comic book superheroes.
Peter Cushing’s notes on playing Sherlock Holmes for his performance in The Hound of the Baskervilles [Hammer Films, 1959]:
Morning suit—hat—gloves?—cane. Cape over tweed suit (no hat). Put stains and burns on gloves. Don’t make Holmes obvious—or his suspicions. Suspect everything. Don’t do jackets up at all. Get nervous energy over. Just slip pipe to mouth (not open mouth). Puff clouds of smoke. Sardonic sense of humour. Flashes of steel after laconicness. The deerstalker has been dyed a little. Do cuffs up as if buttoned—short links. Make top quiff of hair stand up a little. Have hypnotic quality. Slight mystic quality.
Dialogue from Horror Express [Granada Films, 1972]:
Inspector Mirov: But what if one of you is the monster? Dr Wells: Monster? We’re British, you know!
The Broadway actor-manager William Gillette was famous for playing Sherlock Holmes. His 1899 production was the first stage play authorized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The image of the character with his deerstalker hat, magnifying glass, and curved meerschaum pipe is largely derived from Gillette’s stage persona.
A native of Connecticut, Gillette built a large and eccentric country house in Hadlyme near the mouth of the Connecticut River. The estate is now operated as a state park.
Gillette Castle re-opened this summer season after being closed for more than a year. I took the opportunity to visit on opening day back in May.
The exterior could pass for a gothic ruin weathered by centuries. The interior is Arts & Crafts. The walls are covered in woven rattan. Secret doors communicated between rooms so Gillette could surprise (or avoid) his guests.
While the house was being built he lived on a boat named Aunt Polly. It was later destroyed in a fire but a few details remain.
Upstairs in the tower is a collection of theatrical memorabilia, including sketches of Gillette in character by Pamela Colman Smith, who illustrated the Rider-Waite tarot.
A miniature railway once traversed the estate. Gillette housed his engines in a shed he called Grand Central Station. Walking trails now follow the route of the rails.
In my opinion the high point of television as a medium—even an artform—was the British detective programming of the 1980s through the mid-1990s. I am thinking obviously of Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett and Poirot with David Suchet, but also programs that ran for only one or two series like Campion with Peter Davison and A Dorothy L. Sayers Mystery with Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walter.
In the United States these programs were broadcast on public television as part of the Mystery! anthology produced by WGBH in Boston. The episodes were introduced in a wrap-around segment by host Vincent Prince, and later Diana Rigg. Anyone who watched Mystery!—especially if they were growing at the time, like me—will inevitably remember the opening credit sequence designed by illustrator Edward Gorey.
At the time that Mystery! premiered in 1980 Gorey was coming off of his greatest commercial success, the 1977 Broadway revival of Dracula, which he designed. (I was born three days after it closed in 1980, but my parents saw it.)
In 1979 Gorey bought a 200-year old sea captain’s home in Yarmouth, Massachusetts. He had been living in Manhattan where he attended every single performance of the New York City Ballet. After the death of NYCB founder and choreographer George Balanchine in 1983, Gorey moved permanently to Cape Cod. He lived the last seventeen years of his life there and it remains a museum and gallery of his art.
His work on Mystery! is represented in a collection of storyboards and animation cells from the title sequence and a poster for the tenth anniversary in 1990. I think Joan Hickson and Edward Hardwicke appear surprisingly recognizable in the artist’s style.
As a voracious consumer of mystery novels I have a certain fondness for The Shadow. Introduced in 1930 by pulp publishers Street & Smith as the host of their radio program Detective Story Hour the character was developed in a series of novels by Walter B. Gibson, writing under the name Maxwell Grant. The Shadow had a corresponding but not-entirely-overlapping identity in pulps, radio (where he was voiced most famously by Orson Welles), and film—but it was Gibson’s stories that set the standard. Costumed in trench coat and fedora with a crimson scarf half covering his face, The Shadow became a template for comic book heroes like Batman.
Deadlinereports that Condé Nast, which owns The Shadow, has contracted advertising executive turned writer James Patterson to revive the character “in a series of books that will also aim to be adapted for the screen.” The new series will evidently update the setting from the 1930s to “the modern age,” no doubt forgoing the ambiance of grotesquerie and chinoiserie. Suffice it to say, the project does not appeal to me.
Gibson wrote literally hundreds of Shadow stories, which are enough to keep any reader busy. I collect the reprints published two-titles-to-a-book by Nostalgia Ventures/Sanctum Books. Last year Sanctum announced that their reprints would end with Volume 151 because “Condé Nast would not renew rights.” Now we know why. Happily all but three of Gibson’s titles had already been reprinted.
Writing in the New Republic, Colin Dickey describes the influence of Thomas De Quincey’s 1823 essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” as it relates to the suspense genre:
There’s a moment in Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate film, Frenzy, when the murderer Robert Rusk, a serial sexual predator, finds himself in a bit of a bind. Having just loaded the corpse of the hero’s girlfriend onto a truck carrying sacks of potatoes, Rusk realizes he’s left some incriminating evidence on the body. He climbs back up to retrieve it, but the truck begins moving, taking him further from London and into the country. As Rusk struggles to retrieve his tie-pin from his victim’s hand, he discovers rigor mortis has set in and he’s forced to break her fingers to get it free. It’s an elaborate, perversely comic scene in which a loathsome monster is strangely empathetic: Like any workaday slob, he’s made a small mistake in his job, and fixing it has turned into an increasingly complex comedy of errors. Who couldn’t sympathize with him? This is one of the great hallmarks of Hitchcockian suspense: The moment when, against all your instincts, you find yourself developing some measure of sympathy with the Devil.
More than a hundred years before Hitchcock began making films, Thomas De Quincey first pegged this affect in an 1823 essay, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth.” The essay turns on the moment when Macbeth is in the process murdering King Duncan. Macbeth is momentarily disturbed by MacDuff’s knocking at the gate, and he panics that his crime might be discovered. Why, when we know Macbeth’s crime to be immoral, do we switch allegiance, ever so momentarily, from the victims to the murderers?
De Quincey had no language available in the canon of Shakespearean criticism to describe how such a moment engendered “a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity,” it fell to him to invent it. “Murder, in ordinary cases, where the sympathy is wholly directed to the case of the murdered person,” he reasons, “is an incident of coarse and vulgar horror; and for this reason that it flings the interest exclusively upon the natural but ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life.” This attitude to primal panic would never “suit the purposes of the poet.” What, then, must a poet do to elevate such a scene to high art? The only option: “He must throw the interest on the murderer.”
De Quincey and his subsequent essay “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts” are treated at length in a chapter on the origins of the mystery genre in my new book Victoriana.