Thursday, 20 August 2015

On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts by Thomas de Quincey Review (Little Black Classics #4)

Thomas de Quincey’s 1827 essay, On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts, is a satirical take on the English public’s fascination with gory murder, inspired by the 1811 Ratcliff Highway killings. 

De Quincey imagines a sophisticated, but secret, group of gentlemen who meet to discuss the aesthetics of murder as some are wont to do with a painting or a novel or a piece of music. The essay is framed as a “stolen lecture” from the group. 

It’s meant to be hysterical but who knows what the jokes were! Besides some bad puns, is the idea of discussing murder as an art hilarious in itself? There are a couple of strange murders described where a horseman killer puts stockings on his horse’s feet so nobody can hear him coming. Another describes a 27 round boxing match in a bedroom. Oh my sides… or were those real and not intended to be humorous? 

The rambling essay mentions the murders of famous philosophers – apparently, heh, if you weren’t murdered, haha, you weren’t, hahahaha, a worthwhile philosopher AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!! – as well as numerous Latin phrases. I thought the latter was a pretty pretentious feature but then again Latin was more well-known in those days so I expect it was commonplace practice back then(translations are included). 

I’ve a feeling De Quincey’s On Murder went over my head as I didn’t understand what was so special about it. I couldn’t tell what the jokes were or what points the essay was making (if any). I like the concept and the title is good but it was laboriously written, slow and ponderous – a mystifyingly dull “classic”. 

I’d recommend reading the Ratcliff Highway murders Wikipedia page instead which is vastly more interesting and is roughly the same length as de Quincey’s essay:

On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts


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  2. So far these little black classics you are reviewing seem to be the night time television of their time, which is probably why these stories (so far) aren't really notable today. There was a huge bulk of writing in the 18th and 19th century that is more often boring than not, as reading was the pass time before television, printing costs were low(er) and magazines and papers were flourishing, looking for serialized material to fill space. Just guessing by what this black book series has offered so far, it doesn't contain anything like Moby Dick, Tom Sawyer, or Rime of the Ancient Mariner?