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Authors: Eric Ambler

The Ability to Kill

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Copyright ©1960, 1963, 1987 by Eric Ambler
Copyright ©1956 by the Curtis Publishing Company

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in Great Britain by The Bodley Head Ltd, London, in 1951. Subsequently published in the United States by Mysterious Press, New York, in 1987.

Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage Crime/Black Lizard and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Vintage eISBN: 978-0-307-95011-6

Cover design by Peter Quach




with much affection


It was Ted Patrick and Harry Sions, editors of the American magazine
, who suggested that I write
The Lizzie Borden Memorial Lectures.
Two other pieces in this book were also written for that magazine. Parts of my account of the Finch-Tregoff murder trial originally appeared in
Life. The Magic Box of Willie Green
was first published in
Harpers Bazaar. The Novelist and the Film-Makers
was originally a lecture, an edited version of which was later published in
The British Film Academy Journal.

The lyric from
The Merry Widow
by Franz Lehar quoted on page 187 is reproduced by permission of Chappell and Co Ltd (Copyright 1907 renewed), and that on page 198 by permission of the Robbins Music Corporation (Copyright 1934).



Although it is now generally agreed that the modern mystery novel had its origins in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle, it is not always realised that most early crime writing was what would now be categorised by the awards committee of Mystery Writers of America as ‘fact crime’.

Mass literacy in the English-speaking world of the 19th century was the flowering of a quasi-religious movement, that ‘Puritan impulse to teach poor children to read God’s word for themselves’ which came with the visions of a New Jerusalem. Those who were against such teaching, the illiberal old orders, said that poor children so corrupted would not stop at the Bible, that soon their grubby fingers would be reaching out for other books. The old orders were right. Once the new readers had, through the printed page, gained access to the world of ideas, there was no holding them. When they tired of reading religious tracts that only told them how sinful they were it was natural that they should turn for self-improvement to reading all they could about crime and punishment.

The format used by the early crime publishers was that of the tract, a thin, thread-bound, paper-covered booklet of
twenty-four or thirty-six pages set in very small type. The selling prices would be in pennies. They offered verbatim reports of sensational criminal trials. Their authors, usually anonymous though often described as ‘eminent’, seem mostly to have been needy lawyers, or their clerks, aided by Grub Street hacks. In the early days they pretended not to take sides in the cases they were reporting. Of course, they did take sides, but they did so artfully; they were writing and editing for an emerging middle class that was both sanctimonious and prurient. It had a special liking for scandal in high places.

In London in 1836, for instance, a Mr Norton brought an action against Lord Melbourne—the great Lord Melbourne who was to become Queen Victoria’s favorite prime minister—for having Criminal Conversation with Mrs Norton. Mr Norton claimed damages of £10,000. The ‘full and accurate report of this remarkable trial by an Eminent Reporter’ cost sixpence, and its 36 pages included a portrait engraving of the beautiful Mrs Norton, a granddaughter of the playwright Sheridan. Criminal Conversation was then a lawyers’ term for adultery. In this case it was alleged that Lord M, who had used his influence as Home Secretary to get Mr Norton made a magistrate, regularly took advantages of that good man’s absences in court to disport himself with Mrs Norton in her bedroom. The evidence of the Nortons’ servants seems to have been all-important and mostly concerned with marks and stains on linen. The Eminent Reporter took refuge in prudish asterisks. A jury of City merchants stoutly refused to believe a word of it and conferred for only a few seconds before dismissing Norton’s claim for damages. Their verdict was loudly cheered. Lord M was a popular figure.

By the middle of the century most notable trials were being reported in this way. The crime involved was often murder, but not always. The famous case of the Tichborne Claimant, for example, had its climax in a trial for perjury. It was, of course, a ready-made mystery of an old-fashioned kind, the tale of an unknown stranger from a far-off land turning up out of the blue to claim that he was the long-lost but rightful heir to a title and a fortune. All he had to do was prove his identity; and he went to extraordinary lengths to provide the proof. Public opinion was sharply divided for and against him. The case has inspired a number of novels. At the time it produced a flood of booklets and some remarkable early crime writing.

Some of the strangest was in a 24-page booklet entitled
The Tichborne Malformation.

It must be remembered that in those days there were, apart from birthmarks, disfigurements and such things as tattoos, no visual aids to the making of positive physical identifications; no dental records with X-rays, no system of fingerprinting. All that the Claimant’s supporters had going for them was a rather shaky legal declaration, made by the rather shaky dowager Lady Tichborne, that she recognised the Claimant as her son. Something more was needed. At one point the lawyers thought they had found it.

The malformation that was said to distinguish the Claimant and so clinch the proof of his Tichborne identity was something the doctors called ‘a retractable penis’. The booklet starts off with a transcript of medical evidence given during the second trial, but given while the public had been cleared from the court. An expert witness, Dr Wilson, is being examined by counsel for the Claimant.

Now did you examine him yesterday with reference to the question of Malformation?

I did.

Has he a Malformation?

He has a Peculiar Formation?

What is that Peculiar Formation?

It seems like the end of an exchange of passwords. The witness suddenly becomes talkative.

The penis retracts in a most unusual degree, so that on one occasion when he passed water, which had been retained for some hours at my express wish, the penis was absolutely out of view, and nothing whatever of it could be seen but the orifice from whence the stream issued. Yesterday I found the member more turgid, but I endeavoured to push it back towards the neck of the bladder with which it is continuous, and I found it perfectly easy to push the whole member out of sight.

Have you anything further to add on the Malformation?

The witness had a great deal to add; he went into the anatomical details. For me, the images his evidence conjures up have the surreal quality of those early Max Ernst collages. The unknown crime writer who salvaged that transcript was ahead of his time. Nor did he confine himself to salvage work. His account of the attempts by the Claimant’s lawyers to find witnesses who would say that the long-lost Tichborne had also had a retractable penis is masterly. The reader is left wishing that the Claimant with the Malformation had not in the end proved to be merely a fraud, an ingenious trickster with, poor fellow, not quite enough up his sleeve.

In America then the public taste for sensation was more austere and notable trial report booklets tended to concentrate as much on the nature of the punishments as on the revelation of the crimes. Accounts of hangings, especially those with speeches from the gallows or bungling by executioners, were
given in great detail. Such booklets could run into many editions and competition between their publishers was keen. Barclay & Co. of Philadelphia were very aggressive in the field, and there was a crime publisher named Deary in Rochester NY who regularly advertised for subscription salesmen. For a while crime-writing almost became a branch of law-enforcement; trial report booklets were the new cautionary tales, the new tracts.

We can see the kind of changes that took place by consulting Thomas McDade’s great bibliography
The Annals of Murder.
In 1833 the trial for murder of the Rev. Ephraim K. Avery of Rhode Island resulted in the publication of no less than twenty-one booklets and pamphlets about the case. The reason was that Avery had been acquitted and that his case had become a mystery. Yet, sixty years later, when Lizzie Borden was acquitted and her case had become a far more celebrated mystery, only four accounts of her case appeared. Edmund Pearson’s famous essay did not appear until 1937.

There is no single, simple way of accounting for such developments. Of course, technical change had something to do with them. In the sixty years between the two cases the number, size and circulations of newspapers had increased amazingly, and many former publishers of booklets were now more profitably engaged in publishing popular periodicals that carried advertising. There were more crime reporters and more space for them to fill. This, too, was the century which saw the emergence of forensic medicine as a discipline and the birth of the great detective as an idea for a hero. The murder mystery as fiction, the solvable mystery, had become more appealing than the murder mystery of fact. There had been a parting of the ways. The mystery story was following a
literary path; fact crime was off wandering in the byways of turn-of-the-century sociology. The parting, however, was temporary. The storytellers re-established contact with reality and the fact crimers took to the pleasures of making new sense of old evidence. There proved to be fashions in crime writing.

For me, the most interesting of all these changes has been in the public attitudes towards crime itself that has taken place during the last one hundred and fifty years. In the early 19th century the most hated and feared crimes were robbery with violence and (for those who lived by the sea) piracy. Domestic or ‘brawl’ murder (then, as now, the commonest kind) was, though deeply sinful, somehow less deplorable. The old fear of our being ‘murdered in our beds’ was a fear of robbers who might, through sheer fecklessness or stupidity, become killers. The crimes we most fear now are mostly those directed against all humanity. Our concern with individual murder has become a concern about the mind of the murderer.

In many states of the modern world murder is no longer a capital offence, and in every one of them at the time of the abolition of the death penalty it was predicted that its absence would increase the murder rate and render the crime no more interesting than petty theft. Neither prediction has been fulfilled. Murder rates still rise and fall along with other statistics recording the human condition. Trials for murder can still make headlines. Wilful, deliberate murder really is the most mysterious of all crimes, stranger than treason or genocide, much stranger than incest. That is why it is so much written and read about.

BOOK: The Ability to Kill
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