Book Review: The History of Murder (1990)

Categories: Book Reviews
Comments: 2 Comments
Published on: 2011.02.28

Title: The History of Murder
Author: Colin Wilson
Subject: the development of murderers in human history
Genre: Crime / History
Publisher: Castle Books

(Originally published in 1990, “The History of Murder” edition I read had been updated in 2004 to include a few new serial killers and mass murderers.)

First of all, I realize that in today’s politically correct atmosphere, it’s not kosher to admit to reading books like this. If I was a teenager in high school and was caught carrying this book, someone would likely report it and assume I was plotting a school shooting. But my distaste for that kind of thinking is well-known. I read fictional books for enjoyment, and non-fiction books to gain knowledge and understanding.

Secondly, I much preferred “The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers” by Michael Newton (1999), which I read several years ago. Newton’s volume did not incorporate opinion, never used first person narrative, and listed facts clearly and concisely.

“The History of Murder” on the other hand felt like it was written by a high school dropout who had simply collected hundreds of newspaper clippings and then searched the internet to fill in the gaps. As it turns out, Wilson is a high school dropout; he left school at 16. After working at factories and other jobs, he turned to writing at age 24. Generally speaking, I wouldn’t care about his level of education (I never finished college), but his writing makes it painfully obvious that he missed a few basic courses.

The first example of this that really stood out is changing quotes. When quoting a police report from the U.S., Wilson changed the spelling of several words to the British version (“tires” to “tyres”, etc.) When a reader detects that an author is willing to play fast and loose with something as irrelevant as an alternate spelling, the reader begins to doubt the author’s veracity in other areas.

Another example that became more obvious throughout the book is Wilson’s tendency to interject himself into the stories. It’s true that he’s been around the world researching crime stories and interviewing serial killers (and even befriending them in a few cases), but in a book purported to be a “history”, it feels extremely unprofessional to say “When I interviewed John, he told me…” Even uneducated readers can spot this TV news-like tone of familiarity. If he had just said, for example: “Smith said in a 1985 interview…”, then the book would be about the killers instead of about Wilson.

This became more apparent during the long and rambling chapter about Jack the Ripper, which is clearly Wilson’s favorite killer.

Something else that was irritating about the book, but is by no means limited to Wilson, is the tendency to interject ethnic descriptions only when a person is black. Example, from page 564: “Nevertheless, she went back to Glasgow, returned to prostitution, and was soon pregnant by her black pimp.” Several times during the book, Wilson felt it necessary to interject the word “black” while describing someone, and once described a man as “Algerian”, while never using ethnic descriptions for Caucasians. Did he feel that it was somehow important that a woman’s pimp was black? If so, it was never made clear.

Additionally, the book was filled with typographical errors and punctuation mistakes, as if this edition was hastily put to press. One would think that a misspelling like “murderd” (page 574) would be corrected quickly in a book about murder.

Here’s a mistake that might have been a typographical error or simply ignorance of American holidays on the part of a British writer: “The day after Thanksgiving, in the third week of November, two women vanished on the mountain…” (page 559). He was discussing a 1980 crime. Thanksgiving has been the fourth Thursday in November since the 1940s, and before that it was on the final Thursday in November (sometimes the fourth, sometimes the fifth), but was never in the “third week” of the month.

One further complaint: for as long as Wilson has been writing about crime, I was surprised at his confusion between the terms “mass murderer” and “serial killer”. At times, he used them interchangeably. “Serial killer” refers to someone who kills two or more victims over a period of time, with days, if not months or years, between the killings, while a “mass murderer” is someone who kills a number of people at the same time and location.

So why did I keep reading? The information in the book was interesting to me. Occasionally, I’ll stop reading a book if the writing is bad enough, and I’ll turn off a movie if the production value or acting is terribly poor. But often I’ll keep going if there’s something that piques my curiosity.

Wilson begins with tyrants and despots deep in history, as the world’s earliest recorded serial killings were often by men trying to gain or maintain power. As he moves through history, Wilson does a satisfactory job of showing the changes in motivations for murders throughout the centuries.

Though the author interjects suppositions and opinions throughout the book, they’re usually clearly marked. And Wilson supplies enough facts so the reader can choose to disagree or form his own opinion on the matter.

Early on, the stories range throughout the world, but almost all of the 20th Century murders mentioned are from the English-speaking world (England, Canada, and the U.S.) I was left to wonder if the rest of the world was murderless during this time, or if Wilson simply had better access to information from these nations.

If I was forced to rate this book on a 1-10 scale, I’d give it a “5”. There are huge problems with the writing, style, editing, lack of professionalism, and so on, but the information (as far as I could tell) was well-researched and accurate. For anyone interested in this type of history, you may be willing to sift through the problem areas just as I did and still enjoy learning something.

  1. Marline says:

    I’m surprised you finished the book. If I had seen a spelling change from US to UK more than once I would have put down the book. That kind of thing really irritates me and ruins my reading experience.

  2. Wil C. Fry says:

    It *almost* ruined my reading experience. If it had been a magazine or newspaper I probably would have put it down. But it was a bargain-bin book that I bought on impulse. :-)

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