Read an Excerpt
Among the countless dazzling artifacts displayed at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are a trove of lethal weapons, ranging from ornately carved aboriginal war clubs to medieval crossbows decorated with engraved ivory panels to French flintlock rifles adorned with silver filigree. What’s most striking about these objects is not their beauty per se but how sheerly gratuitous that beauty is. After all, clubs, crossbows, and firearms kill just as efficiently without ivory inlays or Rococo silverwork. That the makers of these death-dealing implements devoted so much energy to their ornamentation reflects something vital about our species: our need to transmute our most savage instincts into art.
That paradoxical impulse is perfectly epitomized by the murder poem. Taking as its subject the very worst aspects of human nature – our propensity for crime, cruelty, and bloodshed – it shapes that disruptive material into order, wholeness, and meaning. There is, in fact, a wide range of aesthetic and emotional satisfactions to be derived from the selections in this volume. Some tell gripping stories of violence and retribution. Others offer insight into the workings of the psychopathic mind. Still others elicit pity and terror by putting us in the place of the victims. And some — by encouraging us to identify with the killers themselves — offer the vicarious thrill of the forbidden, reminding us of Plato’s dictum that ‘‘the virtuous man is content to dream what the wicked man actually does.’’ For all their variety, however, they share a need to confront and make sense of experiences, from serial murder to familicide, that defy rational comprehension. In doing so they perform the essential function of all true poetry, famously defined by Robert Frost as ‘‘a clarification of life . . . a momentary stay against confusion.’’