Rob history and fiction of crime, how tame and colourless would be the residue!
Project Gutenberg is one of a few ongoing efforts to digitize old books and put them online for free, and a single crime title is all it takes to make your correspondent wild-eyed with delight. The Gutenberg crime offerings include a book that has been on my "List to Buy With Lotto Winnings" for a long, long time.
One of my lucky numbers came in with the digitizing of A Book of Remarkable Criminals by Henry Brodribb Irving. H.B. Irving (1870-1919) was an attorney better known as an actor -- the photo here shows him playing Mr. Hyde, and comes from a terse online biography. Between 1901 and 1921, he wrote six books on criminology, including The Life of Judge Jeffreys, but it is his Book of Remarkable Criminals that gives him lasting fame in a certain set. His careful work, filled with Shakespearean references and superb writing, was admired by crime buffs, which unfortunately did not include his biographer. The latter wrote of his hobby of crime study the following:
H.B. outwore his physical strength ere he was fifty. Would it have been otherwise if he had not so thoroughly and so constantly pursued such a morbid hobby as the study of murder? And could he not have put his fine intelligence and exceptional literary gifts to better use than perpetuating in print the deeds of criminals? In any case, although old gentlemen, be they poets or philosophers or otherwise, may sit up without doing themselves any harm once in a lifetime 'talking about murders,' the pastime would not seem to be a healthy exercise for... an ambitious actor.
Well, Austin Brereton, author of the above, may have shaken a disapproving finger, but unrepentant crime buffs still rejoice over the Book of Remarkable Criminals, so there you have it. The book includes essays on Charles Peace, Robert Butler (the Dunedin murders), M. Derues ("the climbing little grocer"), Dr. Castaing, Irving's take on the immortal tale of Professor Webster, "the mysterious Mr. Holmes," the widow Gras, Vitalis and Marie Boyer, the Fenayrou case, and Eyraud and Bompard.
I name H.B. Irving as one of the bright stars in the constellation of English writers of the "aesthetic" school of crime study founded by De Quincey, perpetuated by the Scotsman, Roughead, and brought to America by Edmund L. Pearson.
To explain -- there are, in essence, two types of authors of criminology: one who will share with you the "delights" of the genre, who will relay the facts of an engrossing murder case with all the zeal of the unabashed murder-lover; the other type (typified by a certain prolific Englishman with the initials C.W.) emphasize the truly horrific cases and make statements like "the crimes of Gilles de Rais [are] too horrible to contemplate" -- at the conclusion of eight solid pages of dry contemplation of his crimes.
Put me in the aesthetic school. Professor Irving, please begin.