Monday, March 9, 2015

"When People Talk of the Perfect Murder . . ."

"The Perfect Murder."
By Edmund Pearson (1880-1937).
Scribner's, July 1937.
Online HERE.

Is the perfect crime feasible? Edmund Pearson says yes—but only in fiction. Apparently, as far as murder goes, any attempts by life to imitate art are doomed to failure. Note his frequent references to then quite popular detective story writers. Some excerpts:
. . . In a mechanized age such as this, it is believed that elaborate technical ingenuity, the employment of strange chemicals and complicated engines, make a detective story interesting. And, perhaps as a result of this fallacy, people indulge in gossip about the perfect murder, and fearfully imagine that we may soon live in constant danger of murder through some contraption invented by the winner of the Nobel Prize in physics.
Does it occur to anybody that what chiefly makes crime worth reading about, either as fiction or fact, is the human element, the strange problems it presents in human conduct, the revelations it makes of the dark recesses of the human heart?
. . . In the two motion pictures named for The Thin Man, I wonder if it is not the rollicking nonsense of Mr. Powell, Miss Myrna Loy, and their dog, which makes these film plays so enjoyable? Are there not many others, besides myself, who long ago gave up risking a headache by trying to follow the complicated and over-ingenious plots with which such films and plays are burdened?
. . . Lord Peter is delightful entertainment; but the details of the murders, their methods and causes, make you reach for the aspirin.
It is probable that the authors of detective novels will continue to write as they choose, since their ingenious scientific plots do interest many readers. It does not follow, however, that when novelists invent elaborate and abstruse methods for committing murder they are basing their work on the facts of actual contemporary crime.
Frederick Small: He planned the perfect murder.
. . . Suppose we examine what was perhaps the most carefully plotted and scientifically executed murder ever done in the United States: the killing of Florence Small by her husband [Frederick Small], at Mountainview, New Hampshire.
. . . It must, you think, have been a baffling crime, only to be unraveled by a detective of supreme skill. As a matter of fact, the murderer was under arrest within twelve hours; and was convicted, sentenced, and executed within the briefest limit of time allowed by the laws of the state. The scheme went utterly to smash, and to my mind, its failure makes rather ludicrous much wise talk about "the perfect murder."
. . . Thanks to the efforts of the writers of detective stories, they [people] think of delicate machinery, of mysterious poisons from South America, trained spiders from Sumatra, "death rays" wielded by mad scientists, and all the rest of the armory of weapons which have been invented by novelists.
. . . The persistent belief of a small minority in [Lindbergh baby kidnapper Bruno] Hauptmann's partial or complete innocence is probably due—in no slight degree—to the fact that writers of fiction, in stories, novels, plays, and films, have continued to present the threadbare situation of a prisoner at the bar who is the spotless and pitiable victim of brutal police, ruthless prosecutors, and savage judges. Fiction about the criminal character—or ninety per cent of it—is designed to please emotional rather than rational folk.
A little reading in the fiction of crime, and still a little more about the facts of crime, in England and America, ought to convince anybody that the myth of the marvelous amateur detective has been built up at the expense of the ordinary and frequently honest policeman. It is amusing to have Sherlock Holmes expose Inspector Lestrade as an ass, and to see Philo Vance show up Sergeant Heath as a blustering nincompoop. But it has furnished a little bit too much ammunition to those who are over-ready to work themselves to a boiling point of indignation in behalf of any and every hoodlum and killer who has at last been run down and put where he belongs.
. . . The fingerprint bureaus, the use of photography, of chemical analysis, the examination of footprints, and many other methods have helped to protect innocent persons, as well as to imperil the guilty. But I have not seen it emphasized, in the great number of books and articles on the subject, that the old-fashioned, plodding work of the humble cop is still important.
. . . clergymen, I have observed, are assiduous and intelligent students of crime.
. . . Final advice to those contemplating murder would be: Don't follow the detective novelists. Avoid elaborate and "scientific" methods. Be direct and ruthless, and, instead of fearing witnesses, get as many around you as possible. The more, the luckier. 
Carlyle Harris: Six capsules and a date with the electric chair.
- A Wikipedia article discusses would-be perfect murderer Frederick Small HERE, while a more detailed account of his trial is HERE. The Carlyle Harris case is discussed HERE, HERE, and HERE.
- Our last visit with Edmund Pearson was HERE.

Category: True crime vs. detective fiction

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