The Wit's Guide to Murder
Or, foul wordplay
This may not be a popular view but it must be said: Murder is bad. The Great Wits frown upon it. Also, they smirk upon it.
“If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begun upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop.”
— Thomas de Quincey
Personally, the fear of missing a deadline has kept my revolver holstered, my dagger sheathed, my lead pipe fitted, my rope furled, and all the other Clue weapons in the board-game box.
“It takes two to make a murder. There are born victims, born to have their throats cut.”
— Aldous Huxley, in Point Counterpoint
But what if temptation got the best of one and one decided to do some recreational murdering? One might as well commit (dun dun dun) the perfect murder. Start by referring to yourself as one, just to throw off the cops. And then take the advice of one of literature’s best psychopaths:
“There’s no such thing as a perfect murder. That’s just a parlor game, trying to dream one up. Of course you could say there are a lot of unsolved murders. That’s different.”
— Patricia Highsmith, writing as Tom Ripley in Ripley Under Ground
Don’t let the perfect murder be the enemy of the good murder, as they say. But what even is a good murder? George Orwell was wistful for the homicides of yesteryear when he wrote The Decline of the English Murder in 1946 (and you can just imagine how far downhill it’s gone since).
Good murders are the ones that have “given the greatest amount of pleasure to the British public,” and they’re perpetrated by “a little man of the professional class – a dentist or a solicitor, say – living an intensely respectable life somewhere in the suburbs, and preferably in a semi-detached house, which will allow the neighbours to hear suspicious sounds through the wall.”
In a fit of anguished passion and purple-prosed moral turpitude, he “should plan it all with the utmost cunning, and only slip up over some tiny unforeseeable detail. The means chosen should, of course, be poison.”
“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”
— Vladimir Nabokov, writing as Humbert Humbert in Lolita
Once you’ve been nabbed, how do you get out of jail? In his experimental autobiography Based on A True Story, Norm Macdonald describes how he helped his jailhouse cellmate Rocco beat a charge of triple murder simply by applying cold hard logic:
I was shocked; any fool knows you can’t murder a man more than once, and I told Rocco as much. … I knew logically that Rocco was completely innocent of at least two of the crimes he’d been convicted of. And I believed in my heart that he was most likely innocent of the other one too. After all, if a man is innocent of two murders, odds are he’s innocent of the third. That’s just grade-school arithmetic.
Getting away with murder is difficult, so best to get away from murder. That’s what Tim Kreider did, just barely, after being stabbed in the throat.
“After my unsuccessful murder I wasn’t unhappy for an entire year.”
— Tim Kreider
In the first essay from his razor-sharp 2012 collection We Learn Nothing, Kreider details the year-long zest for life that followed his near exsanguination. Since then, things have leveled out and the event ultimately proved “that I am capable of learning nothing from almost any experience.”
But: Experience! Good to have! Only possible for the living! So in conclusion, murder is still bad.
How are things? “Same old, same old,” says Vince Vaughn’s hitman in the best line of Mr & Mrs. Smith. “People need killing.” Do they, though? Also, that movie made great use of the song Mondo Bongo by Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros. So, next week?
Fictional killer catchers
Jillian Hess’s Noted newsletter did a terrific installment on how Patricia Highsmith came up with her dark plots, such as:
Murder by mental nagging. Woman nags her husband to suicide, which he does so it looks like he has been murdered. Poison, which he puts in her desk drawer, her fingerprints on it.
Get Wit Quick No. 180 could murder a cup of tea right about now. For my British readers, the board game is called Cluedo. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting is jammed full of tiny unforeseeable details. This newsletter was born to have its ❤️ tapped.
Loving all the Highsmith in this! And not just because you mentioned my post. Thanks for that!
That Patricia Highsmith quote reminded me about the time I watched one of those 90s thrillers about two young men, high class snobby college students who wanted to commit a Perfect Murder and then get found out by a detective who gives the usual note about the One Big Mistake, and I was just old enough at that point to reflect and think "Aren't there unsolved murders all the time? Wouldn't the perfect murder just be going to a high crime statistical area and randomly shooting someone?"