Gun-totin', Chronic-smokin' Hearse Initiator (ludickid) wrote,
Gun-totin', Chronic-smokin' Hearse Initiator

Juicy shadows of another creation

rum_holiday’s husband Doug loaned me this book called Murder for Profit, by one William Bolitho. The author, who died at a young age, was a journalist who, while recovering from wounds suffered in WWI, started researching the killer Desiré Landru. “Returned soldiers,” he writes, “followed with delighting recollection the accounts of Landru’s crimes. This host, back from killing, or suddenly relieved from the fear of being killed, with the taste of despair still under their tongues, learnt with a roar that a little funny man had all these years behind their backs been conducting a private war of his own, earnestly mimicking theirs, even to the casualties.”

The subject matter itself, though well ahead of the curve in its anticipation of the public fascination for serial killing (it was written in 1926), isn’t covered in a particularly insightful way – it’s typical dimestore psychology, right down to an introduction by Dr. Frederic Wertham of Seduction of the Innocent fame. It’s also a product of its time, with plenty of snobbish class elements and an ugly helping of racial taint early on (in discussing Burke and Hare, the infamous West Port body-snatcher murderers and the inspiration for Dylan Thomas’ The Doctor and the Devils, he calls great attention to their Irishness as if it were explanation enough for their low character).

But, o God! The prose.

It’s a real thing of beauty. Bolitho’s writing style is just tremendous, elegant and complex without being too prolix, amazingly sophisticated and clever while still eminently readable, very old-seeming but never dated. It’s really just magnificent writing, in service of such an odd topic; Doug nailed it right on when he said that regardless of what you think of the content or tone, one look at a single paragraph of prose and you’re hooked. I almost wish the thing was longer so I could keep on reading it: I’ve never heard of him before and have no idea if his other books (of which there are few) are this good, but I’m surely going to find out.

In Leith, Burke’s itch for self-improvement broke out again; he induced his landlord to teach him how to clout shoes, and as the latter’s art was not longer than Burke’s power of concentration, when the couple moved towards Edinburgh, 1817, Burke was in possession of all the smaller secrets of cobbling. The couple put up at the Beggar’s Hotel, an Irish resort, which was not dubbed in joke.

…men such as Burke…wash towards the handling of half-worn-out goods, as fatally as a cork to the shore; there to wait until another tide floats them over into the lonely reach where we find them…the modern economic system is a box with two bottoms. Where the smallest regular business of making and selling goods for consumption ends, begins the vast and incoherent traffic of half-used things.


If Burke was a dog, an ill-bred country mongrel that on sight any shepherd would shoot, Hare’s appearance had somewhat of the deviltry or the insane levity of the wolf.


In the mental life of most men there are no free thoughts, for each as it gets up is hooked by the foot in the piled accumulation of the past. Memory, with the background of punishments, fatigues, partings, regrets, breaks our actions, as it hampers our thoughts and its weight produces the prevalent mood that we call character. On a man like Burke this incubus of the past was especially heavy.


His actions were sudden and unrelated to such a degree that he found it easy to raise a laugh; his thoughts had the inferior originality of a child. He was ticklish and sudden in his passions…in court Hare laughed, whenever his throat tickled, whenever a fly blundered in a pane, even while he was charging himself with nightmares of infamy…


Night and morning she would trundle and call, while her mate sat and hammered in a back room of the Log’s, in the artificial twilight, there occupied with the fascinating construction and furnishing of a Cosmos, in the centre of which sat like a Buddha a crab-shaped little Irishman, hairy and muscular, meditating impassively the mystery of lesser beings who whirled in a circle past him in his thoughts, like dust in an orbit round the sun. Street lodgers, city, state had sunk in his mind, filled with the obsession of his own needs and plans, to a phantom of the lightest irreality. While Nell went out with the barrow, the Burke universe was in evolution.


…it is no more wonder the heartless petty swindler…is as happy in this ambiance as a bandit in a forest. Such germinating seed was William Burke in 1818, in the days before he met Hare. He was growing daily in the art of seeing men as material objects revolving round his central reality, as juicy shadows of another creation; to be cheated, used, fought, skinned, abolished when the only need he had come to recognise, the livelihood of William Burke and Helen M’Dougal, required. And these are the first lessons in murder.
Tags: lit

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