William Roughead, founder of modern true-crime books

March 30, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, writers, writing.

No one that I know of has the title of Founder of Modern True-Crime Literature (or some such), but if such a title existed, the leading candidate would be a guy you have probably never heard of — a Scottish lawyer named William Roughead (pronounced ruff-head).

Roughead (1872-1950) was a lawyer in Edinburgh and, by all accounts, was most competent and well-respected.

But instead of taking up an avocation such as woodworking or bird watching, Roughead was fascinated by a portion of his own profession. He loved murder trials, and it is said that he attended every major murder trial in Edinburgh from 1889 through the 1940s.

More important than just watching the trials, Roughead dug deeply into the evidence, the characters, the circumstances of the crime, and the procedures of justice. Fortunately for us, he wrote about many of these cases with a style that puts the reader inside the courtroom, watching intently and listening to his commentary. As Luc Sante writes in the introduction to Roughead’s Classic Crimes:

His prose represents the full range of the English language, circa 1880, as played on a cathedral organ with the largest possible number of manuals, pedals, and stops. He traffics in rare words, disused expressions, abstruse variants, and strictly local idioms, deploying them for reasons that are sometimes historical, sometimes psychological, often shamelessly musical.

The stories that Roughead tells are not classic mysteries in any sense. Rather they are true stories well-told — in other words, good journalism. Again, Luc Sante:

They are anything but cozy. Roughead is not especially interested in clever paradoxes and neat resolutions; in fact he is not nearly as fascinated by the clue-hunting and deductive cogitation aspects of his cases as he is by their elaboration in the courtroom. A murder for him is of interest chiefly insofar as it provides the premise for a rich, complex trial at which personalities can clash, unfold, reveal their wrinkles.

Roughead’s articles on the trials that he observed appeared regularly in the Scottish Juridical Review, a monthly legal journal. Later, he would collect these articles into anthologies. These anthologies brought Roughead’s work to the general public, and he gained a wide set of admirers, from novelists Henry James and  Dorothy L. Sayers to President Franklin Roosevelt.

Joyce Carol Oats, in a 1999 essay for the New York Review of Books (which is where I came across Roughead’s name for the first time only a couple of weeks ago), wrote this about Roughead:

Roughead . . . wrote in a style that combined intelligence, witty skepticism, and a flair for old-fashioned storytelling and moralizing; his accounts of murder cases and trials have the advantage of being concise and pointed, like folk tales. 

Roughead’s work is fairly easily available in anthologies that are found in libraries and with online booksellers. They can also be found at Project Gutenberg and Internet Archives. If the pandemic has you indoors and searching for something a little different to occupy a few hours, William Roughead might be coming to your rescue.

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