Richard Marsh’s “Philip Bennion’s Death”

As promised, here’s the first discussion of some classic Richard Marsh, in celebration of the release of Valancourt’s edition of The Beetle.  I start with a brief discussion of another Valancourt edition, Richard Marsh’s Philip Bennion’s Death (1897).

Richard Marsh was as much a mystery writer as a horror writer, as one can see in The Beetle, which has elements of both genres.  Philip Bennion’s Death is one of Marsh’s ‘pure’ mystery novels, a short and fast page-turner which, though it doesn’t match Marsh’s more elaborate works, is still a nice read.

The story begins with a late-night discussion between the narrator, Mr. Otway, and his friend Philip Bennion, over the concept of “Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.”  Bennion argues at length that murder should be considered perhaps the greatest of the fine arts, and the finest murder is one where no murder at all seems to have been committed.  Otway finds himself in a position to examine this theory when, the next morning, Bennion is found dead on the floor of his apartment, seemingly of natural causes.  In light of the previous night’s odd discussion, Otway is not so sure, and begins to investigate.

Like all good murder mysteries, there is a large list of suspects: Raymond Clinton, the no-good nephew of Bennion, Nina Macrae, Bennion’s ward, and her fiancé Ralph Hardwicke.  Most surprising of all is that Otway cannot rule himself off the list of suspects: he is a regular somnabulist (sleep-walker), and recalls a singular dream in which he watches Bennion die!

As I have said, the tale is a quick read, and enjoyable, though not one of Marsh’s most powerful works.  There are a number of twists and turns in the tale, as in every good mystery.

It is interesting to take a closer look at the essay which serves as the inspiration and driving force of the novel: On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts, by Thomas de Quincey.  This satirical piece appeared in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1827 (and can be read here), and is written as the text of a lecture given to The Society of Connosieurs in Murder, a secret society similar to the so-called Hellfire Clubs of the time which promoted vice and sin.  From the introduction,

Gentlemen, I have had the honour to be appointed by your committee to the trying task of reading the Williams’ Lecture on Murder, considered as one of the Fine Arts — a task which might be easy enough three or four centuries ago, when the art was little understood, and few great models had been exhibited; but in this age, when masterpieces of excellence have been executed by professional men, it must  be evident, that in the style of criticism applied to them, the public will look for something of a corresponding improvement.  Practice and theory must advance pari passu.  People begin to see that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed– a knife — a purse — and a dark lane.   Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature.  Mr. Wiliams has exalted the ideal of murder to all of us; and to me, therefore, in particular, has deepened the arduousness of my task.  Like Æschylus or Milton in poetry, like Michael Angelo in painting, he has carried his art to a point of colossal sublimity; and, as Mr. Wordsworth observes, has in a manner “created the taste by which he is to be enjoyed.”  To sketch the history of the art, and to examine its principles critically, now remains as a duty for the connoisseur, and for judges of quite another stamp from his Majesty’s Judges of Assize.

The lecture continues with a historical view of quite artful murders, including a very humorous description of the murders and attempted murders of numerous famous philosophers:

But there is another class of assassinations, which has prevailed from an early period of the seventeenth century, that really does surprise me; I mean the assassination of philosophers.  For, gentlemen, it is a fact, that every philosopher of eminence for the two last centuries has either been murdered, or at the least, been very near it; insomuch, that if a man calls himself a philosopher, and never had his life attempted, rest assured there is nothing in him; and against Locke’s philosophy in particular, I think it an unanswerable objection, (if we needed any) that, although he carried his throat about with him in this world for seventy-two years, no man ever condescended to cut it.

The satirical premise of the essay — that murder, and perhaps crime in general, can be elevated to an art form — was, according to Wikipedia, highly influential on future literary representations of crime and criminals.  For instance, consider the words of Auric Goldfinger:

Man has climbed Mount Everest, gone to the bottom of the ocean. He’s fired rockets at the Moon, split the atom, achieved miracles in every field of human endeavor… except crime!

Or we may consider the words of Lex Luthor:

There’s a kind of cruel justice about it. I mean, to commit the crime of the century, a man naturally wants to face the challenge of the century.

Obviously, the essay by de Quincey, though seventy years old at the time of Marsh’s writing, also inspired him in the writing of Philip Bennion’s Death!

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