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'American Homicide'; 'Women Who Kill'

Two studies suggest that the killing instinct is what also defines us as Americans.

November 29, 2009|By Richard Rayner
(File )

American Homicide

Randolph Roth

Belknap Press: 656 pp., $45

Women Who Kill

Ann Jones

Feminist Press: 468 pp., $15.95 paper

A couple of weeks ago in Venice, I was cycling back from the store and found 7th Avenue blocked by fire trucks and cop cars parked at crazy angles with their doors open and lights flashing. People thronged the sidewalk on the western side of the street, where an old woman was holding up four fingers, saying: "Four. I heard four shots." Yellow tape sectioned off the alley behind the First Baptist Church, and an LAPD officer on guard confirmed that a shooting had occurred. Later I discovered that the victim, William Charles McKillian Jr., 19, had been gunned down by unknown assailants. Soon afterward, only a mile or so away, another young man was shot to death. This second murder was a drive-by at a bus stop, and while detectives wondered whether the two deaths were related -- gangland tit-for-tat -- counselors got ready to do their stuff at the local high schools.

It's a typical Los Angeles story, reminding us that murder is integral to our lives. Most of us consider the possibility that, if pushed to some extremity, we might be capable of doing it. And we know that, if we're careless or just unlucky on any given day or night, we could be killed ourselves. Murder is as much a part of being human as sex -- and seemingly as inevitable. No surprise, then, that murder frequently takes center-stage in the stories we choose to tell. Fictional narratives tend to ask the simple question: Who did it? Nonfiction ones, be they tabloid splashery, literary reportage or dry-as-dust criminological survey, usually look through the telescope's other end, searching for causation, the reasons for the carnage.

Randolph Roth's "American Homicide" presents a working hypothesis about why America is the most murderous of all the so-called First World nations. Roth's conclusions are profound and disturbing. America's high murder rate isn't just about too many guns. Rather, Roth argues, American murder is bound up inextricably with the grabby tumult of America's democracy, with how America evolved and continues to define itself. Spouses and spurned lovers off each other all over the world, but murder forms a part of the American identity in a unique way. In "Studies in Classic American Literature," D.H. Lawrence wrote of the "frenzy of restlessness in the Yankee soul, the inner malaise that amounts almost to madness," arguing that America, through its extermination of the native Indians, murdered itself into existence. Roth doesn't quite say that; nor does he stop far short of saying that, either.

It was in the 1840s and 1850s that killings exploded across the nation. "The least homicidal places in the Western world suddenly became the most homicidal," Roth writes. "All kinds of homicide increased. . . . Everywhere and under all sorts of circumstances, Americans, especially men, were more willing to kill friends, acquaintances, and strangers."

Roth, a professor of history at Ohio State University, backs this up with copious evidence and statistics, and a tense urgency sometimes burns through the deliberate coolness of the prose. The idealism of post-revolutionary America, he argues, was usurped by the divisive and alienating cutthroat economic realities of another revolution, the industrial one, and then by the Civil War, the westward push and the ongoing rumble of racial hatred. Thus, patterns established themselves that endure to this day. What drives the murder rate up or down is always the same. When faith in government is low, and the economy heads south, old societal fissures widen once more and guns go off.

Roth goes further still and brings presidential politics into it, reckoning that bad presidents operate outside the popular mandate and incite hatred, thus provoking more death, while good ones aim for harmony and homicide statistics accordingly go down. Some of this feels airy and tautological, especially when Roth outlines what might help curtail the violence. His prescription, basically, is better government. Well, sure. It feels too much like Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim, who, after his adventures, concluded that "nice things are nicer than nasty ones."

"American Homicide" is much more persuasive when exploring the roots of its own polemic in the 19th century, as Roth lays out the specifics of a variety of homicides and records instances in lists that have an ominous and concrete poetry all of their own.

"Women Who Kill," originally published in 1980 and now reissued with a new introduction by author Ann Jones, aims at a better-defined target. Already something of a classic, both of feminism and of true-crime writing, the book shows how women, when they kill, typically kill not strangers but their intimates, their children or, more often, their abusive partners.

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