August 2010 | L. D. Mitchell

The Unofficial Historian of Crime

There is not much mystery about Balham nowadays--unless it be why anyone should wish either to go or stay there; but in the summer of 1876 it was a name to conjure with, a word of sinister significance and power, compelling for many months the attention of the English-speaking race. ...

Don't reach for that Collected Sherlock Holmes on your bookshelf--Arthur Conan Doyle didn't pen the above. Nor did Wilkie Collins. Nor did any other novelist of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

The above quotation is in fact not from a work of fiction at all. Malice Domestic, or The Balham Mystery, is a report about a real-life crime, one of many penned by an extraordinary individual with whom few book collectors nowadays are likely to be acquainted--even though that individual virtually invented the genre of true crime as we know it today.
Born in Edinburgh in 1870, William Roughead has often been labeled, among other sobriquets, The Father of True Crime and The Unofficial Historian of Crime. Though trained for the bar, his father's untimely death allowed him the luxury of not having to actually practice his profession. After his 19th birthday, he spent most of his time reporting on murder trials. In fact, from 1889-1949, Roughead attended every murder trial of significance held in the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh, publishing his accounts of them in a series of best-selling books. The first such collection, Twelve Scots Trials (depicted left), was published in 1913. He later went on to serve as Editor for Notable British Trials.

As David Wade observes in a recent article, it is because Roughead took the cases [he reported] so seriously and deepened the nature of the crime writer's enquiry into motivation and circumstance, he became that rare instance in the genre, the true stylist. This is what attracted Henry James to [Roughead's] writing and it is what has confirmed and maintained his reputation.

If Roughead had not existed, we probably would have had to invent him. Certainly, it's difficult to imagine The Stranger Beside Me, Helter Skelter, In Cold Blood and similar true crime titles absent a major progenitor like Roughead. It is a measure of his importance that NYRB Classics has recently reprinted a number of his works as a single volume (depicted below). ...