Book #25

On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts by Thomas De Quincey

In this provocative and blackly funny essay, Thomas de Quincey considers murder in a purely aesthetic light and explains how practically every philosopher over the past two hundred years has been murdered - 'insomuch, that if a man calls himself a philosopher, and never had his life attempted, rest assured there is nothing in him'.

This essay explores the 'art' of murder in the same way one would take time to appreciate a painting, a sculpture, or a work of fiction. It begins with a letter to Blackwood's Magazine describing a group of gentlemen who meet and discuss the aesthetics of murder, and their merits. The author of the letter, utterly condemning this practice, urges the editor to join him in vilifying this group of men, and encloses a lecture from the group which has mysteriously found its way into his hands. This sets the essay up well, however what follows is a long discourse on the murder of philosophers, going back as far as Cain, after which we are given no conclusion on either the continuation or disbanding of our group of amateur murder admirers.

It's well-structured, and detailed without too much excess, but it's definitely an odd read. I really felt I was in a room of educated gentlemen, listening to the lecture, and giggling in the right places whilst feeling slightly naughty. The language changes from English to Latin frequently, and then back again, but rather than distract my reading, I took this as a learning experience (thanks to the translations) and a sign of the time the essay was written. This is something I'm really thankful for in the Little Black Classics range: opening my eyes to new language and teaching me something new.

What struck me most was a small note at the beginning of the novel, detailing de Quincey's fascination with a series of murders by a John Williams, which took place in 1811. Williams was arrested and found hanged in his cell a few days later. The note explains de Quincey returned to this in his writing many times over the years, and it seems in this essay he's commenting on the public's macabre enchantment of murder, and their perverse interest in the gory details. As we know, this is still the case in our modern day, and it'd be delightful to read de Quincey's lecture describing the well known murders of our time

Sed fugit interea, fugit irreparabile tempus,
Singula dum capti circumvectamur amore.
[But meanwhile time is flying, flying beyond recall,
while we linger, captivated by our love of detail.]