»  The Straggler, No. 36

October 10th, 2005

  The Same Old Story


If one examines the murders which have given the greatest amount of pleasure to the British public …
                     — George Orwell, "Decline of the English Murder" (1946)

The conviction of Nancy Kissel, the "milkshake murderess," was briefly noticed in this magazine ("The Week," 9/26/05). Mrs. Kissel was the wife of a senior Merrill Lynch executive stationed in Hong Kong. She did the deed by feeding her husband a strawberry milkshake fortified with a date-rape drug, then, when he was unconscious, bludgeoning him to death with an art object made of lead. She then rolled Mr. Kissel up in a carpet which she secured with tape and had taken away to a storage room. The Chinese workmen who carried the carpet complained that it smelled of salted fish. (I imagine they were thinking of the mo-yu, or inkfish, a south-Chinese delicacy which does indeed have a powerfully putrid smell.) Mrs. Kissel claimed at trial that her husband had spied on her, threatened her with a baseball bat, patronized gay porn websites, and demanded unorthodox sexual favors. All these allegations were declared by Mr. Kissel's relatives, acquaintances and colleagues to be out of character for the man they had known.

It emerged that while taking refuge at the family home in Vermont during the 2003 SARS epidemic, Mrs. Kissel had fallen into an affair with a cable repairman who lived in a nearby trailer park. Passionate letters were exchanged after her return to the Far East. The fact that her husband's demise would bring her several million dollars was discussed. Her husband found out about the affair, was furious, and threatened divorce. Money! Sex! Class! "Hearts filled with passion, / Jealousy and hate"! This was one of your good old-fashioned domestic murders, perfect newspaper copy. I wish Mrs. Kissel had exercised a bit more ingenuity in disposing of the corpse. Hong Kong, however, is a very crowded place, and a human body is a difficult thing to hide even in more spacious surroundings. Mrs. Kissel did her best, I am sure.

Everybody loves a good murder story. We have been short of them recently, though. None of the big stories of the past few years has fitted the classic mold. Both the O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake trials ended in acquittal, depriving us of the satisfaction of seeing the fell deed actually, judicially, pinned on someone. (Though we may yet hope that O.J.'s unflagging efforts to identify the real killer of his wife will be crowned with success at last.) The Scott Peterson case was moved out of the realm of comprehensible, if extreme, human behavior by the fact of the victim having been far gone in pregnancy. It is possible to feel some sympathy for Dr. Crippen or Mrs. Kissel, but no-one of ordinary human emotions can identify with an amoral monster like Peterson.

I had early instruction in the ways of murderers and the mysteries they often engender. The house I grew up in was halfway along a street at the southern edge of a small English country town. If you walked to the end of the street and crossed over the London Road, you were in open countryside, among woods, fields and hedgerows rolling away to East Anglia and the sea, interrupted only by Saxon villages little changed since they had been written up in the Domesday Book nine hundred years before. The nearest of these villages was Hardingstone, a standard-issue assemblage of pub, ancient church, thatched cottages, and manor house. ("vi sokemen and vi bordars have there iii ploughs …" — Domesday.) You got to this place via Hardingstone Lane, which meandered for half a mile or so under oak and chestnut trees, bordered by a moldering stone wall and a ditch.

Hardingstone Lane was the scene of a famous murder in 1930. From out of that ditch, at two o'clock of a November morning, Alfred Arthur Rouse popped up, to the surprise of two village men walking home from a dance in the town. "Looks as if someone's had a bonfire," said Rouse, referring to an unusual sight further along the lane: a blazing car, which the two villagers were contemplating with surprise. The car, it later transpired, was Rouse's. Entangled with several women and sinking into debt, Rouse had decided to disappear. Befriending a stranger in a pub, he heard the man say he had no close relatives, and furthermore needed a lift to a northern city. Rouse supplied the lift and a bottle of scotch. When the passenger had drunk himself into a stupor, Rouse throttled him, parked the car, and torched it, hoping that the charred corpse would be taken for his own. Perhaps it would have been if he'd had the sense to stay out of sight in that ditch. He got away from Hardingstone, but was caught within days, convicted after a six-day trial, and hanged a month later. Justice was brisk in those days.

Nobody ever knew the identity of Rouse's victim. There was, and I am sure still is, a marker for his grave in Hardingstone churchyard, a varnished wooden cross saying only "In Memory of an Unknown Man." For decades afterwards — well into my own childhood — stories would crop up in the town newspaper, someone recollecting a relative or acquaintance who had vanished from the face of the earth in 1930.

"Vanished from the face of the earth"! How I used to thrill at that phrase, which I think I must have first heard in the context of the Rouse murder! It was what Rouse had hoped to do. It was what his anonymous victim had actually done, so far as those who knew him were concerned. I suppose some hundreds of persons vanish from the face of the earth every year, some deliberately, on the Rouse plan, some unwillingly, like his victim. Most of us have probably fantasized along these lines at one time or another. Some dismaying, but fortunately unguessable, proportion of us have contemplated, at least fleetingly, doing to a spouse the thing that Mrs. Kissel did to Mr. Kissel. Here are our own darkest midnight thoughts made real. No wonder murders bring us so much pleasure.