Monday, November 26, 2007

History as a reminder

They say that history is valuable to teach us what mistakes not to repeat. I have thought for some time now that what it teaches us instead is that human nature doesn't really change much, that the flaws we see in the present - in individuals, in our community and in the world - have always existed and likely always will. These human weaknesses persist over time although they may present themselves with different trappings. My present reading has only confirmed this belief. But I like reading history nevertheless.

The Maul and the Pear Tree
is an early P. D. James mystery but it is non-fiction and co-authored with T. A. Critchley. It tells the true story of several gruesome and seemingly senseless murders which were committed in a dockside area of London in 1811. I had read the book many years ago but had forgotten the plot and the conclusion completely so it still read like a mystery to me.

The first murder took the lives of four people in a household - a shopkeeper, his wife, their infant son and a servant boy. The second set of murders took place nearby and not long after. An older publican, his wife and a servant woman were similarly bludgeoned to death and their throats cut. Who committed these horrific crimes? The authors take us through the maze of clues to be considered by the amateurish "police" forces of the times and documents the mostly ineffective reactions of the government of the day.

We can understand that the forensic methods we have now were not available to the authorities then, but what strikes me is the similarity in the lack of communication, the lack of thought and a deficiency of what I can only call "intellligence" or common sense by authorities that we often see missing today in incidents like the tasering of the poor Polish man at Vancouver International Airport.

What is also similar is the reaction of the public. The morbid interest in the gory details of the crimes, the speculation, the fear aroused in the neighbourhood, the criticism of the authorities when no solid arrests were made (although several unfortunate men were held on rather flimsy evidence for some time) and the lurid press - none of this is unfamiliar although over a century separates us from the residents of Wapping.

I won't spoil it for anyone by disclosing the ending. P. D. James is an excellent writer and a certain humour and irony shows through her account of the somewhat keystone cops like investigation. If you want to get a flavour of what this book is like you can read excerpts of it online.

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Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.
Dorothy Parker, Not So Deep as a Well (1937)