Murder in Plain English sounds like a very cunning plan, as Baldrick would say. Michael Arntfield’s and Marcel Danesi’s premise is that they’re setting out to examine murder through two sets of eyes – the literary writer and the murderer-as-writer. And their approach – using literary criminology, which our hosts define as the study of crime through the lens of literature and language – is an enticing one.
The authors have eclectic backgrounds in criminology, semiotics and anthropology – Arntfield is a professor of literary criminology and forensic writing, and Danesi a professor of anthropology and apparently the founder of forensic semiotics. Which is why some of their asides seem odd – early on, they comment that the contents of a killer’s manifesto have thankfully not been made public. You’d think, given their fields and the focus of the book, they’d be jumping up and down at the front of the queue to analyse the text.
This rather pursed-lips disapproval pervades much of the book. The authors have a tendency to impose their views of the killers on the reader, and I’m not sure that telling us that X is a scumbag or Y is a creep counts as penetrating analysis. It comes across more as the manufactured indignation of a Sun or Daily Mail editorial. I’m all for accessible writing, but I’d like some academic rigour, please.
The book’s own manifesto turns out to be a tad misleading if you’re expecting lengthy and revealing insights into murder and literature. There’s an initial chapter with a fairly random look at the history of murder, kicking off with Judith and Holofernes in the Bible, and with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them mentions of Edgar Allan Poe, Crime and Punishment and Se7en. There are some glances elsewhere of what the book might have been, notably the case of team serial killers Leonard Lake and Charles Ng. Close reading of Lake’s diaries show that he was influenced by The Collector, the novel by John Fowles.
The authors are rather fond of lists, so expect to find your students parroting back at you the likes of the five subtypes of pathological self-love or the 10 mass murderer types or the categories for classifying murder. Otherwise, the meat of the book comprises whistle-stop references to a variety of killers. There’s a chunk of Ted Bundy’s final interview, which is passed off as disingenuous and self-serving religious babble without any further analysis. And we’re told that 20th-century serial killer Carl Panzram’s rage shows itself in his lexicon, grammar and punctuation. But if you’re expecting close reading of texts, you’re going to be disappointed – the authors provide three brief quotes from Panzram, then pass on to sharing how serial killers have a disordered and inflated sense of superiority. Sadly, these comments set the tone for most of the book; analysis of killers’ letters and so on is surprisingly cursory in most cases – and not that revealing.
Criminologists and psychologists will find some useful source material here. But anyone wanting a closer focus on the literary side of things, given the popularity and broad sweep of crime fiction and television cop shows, will have to wait for another book.
Murder in Plain English: From Manifestos to Memes – Looking at Murder through the Words of Killers
By Michael Arntfield and Marcel Danesi
Prometheus Books, 325pp, £19.99
Published 7 March 2017