The first murderer in my life was John George Haigh, also known as the acid bath murderer. While in prison for some lesser crime, he dreamed up the idea of dissolving bodies in sulphuric acid until they were sludge. Which he did during the late 1940s in Britain, pouring loads of it down manholes. His last victim was a 69-year-old widow living at a hotel in Kensington. Haigh liked the Persian lamb coat she wore and it was the cleaning ticket for it that helped track him down.
The British papers were rapturous about Haigh. There are no subjects that people read about more eagerly and deny reading about more readily than murder and sex—preferably in combination. When someone speaks of reading such a story, they proffer the waiting-room defence. Perhaps you are reading this very column while waiting for your dental checkup.
The holidays are a lodestone for violence. An Alberta mother was charged with attempted murder and arson just before Christmas after allegedly setting fire to the family home—husband and kids inside. I expect a number of mums contemplate doing something similar around Christmas, and indeed the Edmonton Police Service weighed in to helpfully explain holidays can be a time of stress for families. They certainly were for the couple from Ajax, Ont., who were on a reconciliation holiday in Jamaica that went a bit wobbly when, according to police, on Dec. 23 the husband took a different route to the airport, drove to a secluded spot, where he allegedly slashed his wife’s throat and tossed her out of the car—one sure way to patch up a marriage. Fortunately, he appears to have been a bungler and the wife survived to tell the tale even while he was telling the police about the strange man who did it.
Most great literature and low entertainment have one thing in common: violent death. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment wouldn’t have worked half as well if Raskolnikov had only robbed the old woman pawnbroker rather than bashed in her head (though for me the truly awful murder in the novel is of the small sorrel mare, whipped to her knees by her sadistic owner before being pulverized to the cheers of peasant onlookers). Shakespeare is a literary serial killer. Ancient Greek vases most often depict the violent death of Priam on the altar of Jupiter, and where would Freud have been without Oedipus? The classic children’s fairy stories almost always had murder in them, probably with the idea that you can’t train children too early about the dangers of wicked old women who might bake them in an oven.
Murder is the crime we most easily say we would like to do and are the least likely to commit. When people irritate us the first words said are “I could kill him.” Everyone knows no one means it, but the language is a good indicator of how basic this is to our nature. We rarely think, “I could burgle or embezzle him.” Orwell thought murder gave some insight to national character. The ideal English newspaper murder, he wrote, should be about an ordinary bloke. He’d be a conservative and teetotaller (and recycling his garbage these days), the man living next door, preferably in a semi-detached house where strange noises coming through the walls could be heard by neighbours. He plans his wife’s murder with the utmost cunning but slips up over some small detail. The French pride themselves on the crime passionel. Americans seem to specialize in lunatic young men who go mad and shoot half the school. What then is the Canadian murder?
Our headline murder has to have a moral message as well as a sexual component. The frivolous murder is very un-Canadian. The Vancouver pig farmer targeted prostitutes. Quebec campus massacres sparked debates about gun control and apologies about cultural racism. Ontario’s murderer Paul Bernardo and serial rapist Karla Homolka had between them one dysfunctional home and two sets of misfiring hormones. The Canadian Forces colonel stole lingerie from homes before he raped and murdered. Making a fuss afterwards is very Canadian, too, with an immediate call for counselling for everyone. The colonel’s dressing up in missy’s underwear upset our warriors, whose training hadn’t prepared them for such horror. His uniform suffered its own auto-da-fé when ostentatiously burned together with his equipment and documentation. “There was no ceremony but it was formal,” a military spokesman told the press. Occasionally in Canada we have a “one-off” job, like the Chinese immigrant who decapitated a passenger on a Greyhound bus and was said to have then eaten bits of him.
Bees do it, some birds do it, only human beings go at it with such cold-blooded deliberation and planning. But it has its place in the world: without murder, Christians would still be Jews and God only knows what Jews would be. In the beginning Cain bumped off Abel, marking foreheads forever, and from that time on life has been bloody murder.