Friday, July 29, 2005

I had just finished dinner, a nice roasted duck dish with potatoes and peas, and was thinking about desert when the phone rang. It was Gershon Legman.

Delighted, (desert can certainly wait!) I placed a single sheet of paper in the Selectric and began typing ...

Yes, hello Dr. Wertham! How are you tonight? I have to apologize for how long I went on last we chatted. Didn't even give you room for a comment there, did !? Well I was in a mood, and I'm sure you know how that can go.

Anyway, I'll be briefer tonight. I'd still like to discuss the murder-mystery, though. Is that agreeable to you? Wonderful. Well, as I was trimming my orange tree it struck me that ... (there's a long pause)

(The sound of the phone being placed down on a table, I hear Gershon cough as he walks back, now yelling into the phone from what sounds like about four or five feet distance)


ONE! UNDERSTANDS! that the murder-mystery is a sort of intellectual puzzle, 'mental exercise' for the mentalities too dim or too jaded for the symbolic combats of cross-word puzzles and chess. But why, then, this persistant, pathological paddling in guts & blood? Why this intense, invariable, I-am-the-man insistance upon personal vengeance in a culture where revenge is disgraceful, the taking of the law into one's own hands a crime? Why must it be murder, murder, murder, MURDER?

(still yelling from some distance away from the phone)

Are there no other mental exercises than the contemplation fo death? Not for the mystery-reader. In 1926, the year that the 'detective' mystery mushroomed into prominence in America, E.M. Wrong, its first serious apologist, found it neccessary to record that:

Time has ... exalted murder, which used to be only one of the several offenses, to a position of natural supremacy.

There are good reasons for this. What we want in our detective fiction is not a semblance of real life, where murder is infrequent and petty larceny common ... Hatred that is strong enough to bring murder is familiar enough to be intelligible to nearly everyone, yet far enough from our normal experience to let us watch as detached observers [!] for we do not feel that is our own crimes that are unmasked. So for many reasons murder is advisable, though not neccessary. The author, if he withholds its appeal, must give us compensation in some other way. (endquote)

(Gershon picks up the phone now, and begins to whisper)

The Oxford University Press, that publishes Mr. Wrong's little anthology of murder — in its 'World Classics' series — simultaneously offers for sale an expurgated Herrick and a bowdlerized Shakespeare. What is the 'compensation in some other way' that readers of Oxford's desexualized Herrick and Shakespeare are supposed to seek?

These are the thoughts and questions I leave you with tonight, Wertham. And good night.

(phone hangs up, end of transcript)