7 OCTOBER 1972, Page 18

Murder for its own sake

Philip Conford

Order of Assassins Colin Wilson (Rupert Hart-Davis £2.25)

I suspect that Cohn Wilson has a vast commonplace book, full of cuttings, quotations and information on murder, the occult, psychology and irrationalist philosophy; and that when he feels the need to produce another book he dips into his commonplace book at random and tries to sort out what he finds into some relatively coherent order around a particular theme. His most recent lucky dip has produced the third volume in a "murder trilogy" the first two volumes of which were An Encyclopaedia of Murder and A Casebook for Murder. His new book is offered as an investigation into the psychology of murderers who commit murder for its own sake, to whom Mr Wilson gives the rather puzzling title of " assassins."

The word has strong political connotations, but the reason for this somewhat misleading use of it is apparently the connection between the Manson murders and a Muslim sect of the middle ages, the Ismaelis, who were known as " hashishins " because they were believed to commit their murders under the influence of hashish. Mr. Wilson spots an obvious parallel here, but it is not clear how far there is a similarity between a highly-organised group of men who kill particular figures for a specific political reason, and a loose-knit group of mentally unstable people who are prepared to kill any member of a society they hate, in the expectation of an apocalypse. Neither does Mr. Wilson give any evidence that the Moors murderers, to whom he devotes a chapter, were drug-takers.

What could have been a much more interesting book is rendered flabby and inconclusive by the lack of discipline and the inability to develop an argument which Mr. Wilson displays at all levels. His lack of attention to detail is shown in the passage which begins with the categorical statement that "the real problem is boredom" (p. 143), but six pages further on assures us that "it is clear that it is not boredom which is at issue." By the end of the book the author himself is evidently worried about his meandering style. "Let me express this vital point as clearly as I can, for it is obviously the core of this book," he pleads (p. 221), and proceeds to make in yet another way a point which has already been laboured several times.

Such repetition fails to provide the reader with any thread to follow, and bores him into the bargain. Each chapter contains the details of one or two murder cases, which are offered as examples of a particular psychological feature of "assassins ". These details are then followed by further theorising. What is soon noticeable is that any of the cases could be used to illustrate any of the various psychological

'observations; and that it is quite unnecessary for the murder cases to be given in full detail. If Mr. Wilson were genuinely using the cases to demonstrate a certain point, he would need only to use their relevant aspects to do so, but as it is, he can be suspected only of padding.

One of the main reasons why Mr. Wilson finds it impossible to produce 0. coherent form for his books is his predilection for quoting other writers, and this to an extent which betokens a lack of confidence in his own ideas unless they be already sanctified by Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Maslow, Pareto, Lorenz, Gide, Sartre. . . . Rather than develop a theory in a logical way, he prefers to be led on by his own association of ideas, a method of writing more suited to the contemporary novel than to what claims to be a scientific investigation of certain phenomena. All of this is a great pity, because an interesting subject is being discussed, and some of what Mr. Wilson has to say has truth to it.

The psychology of the motiveless murder that is offered is based on the theory of a hierarchy of needs put forward by the industrial psychologist Abraham Maslow, on whom Mr Wilson wrote his last book. Murders were previously committed for economic reasons and later for sexual reasons, but now that men have more financial and sexual security, murders are committed for the sake of asserting power. Man is an evolutionary creature and when his economic and sexual needs are fulfilled, the next need is for a strong sense of self-esteem and a meaning in life. These are too often frustrated by a society which provides too little opportunity for the development of individual talents; and boredom sets in, dulling our responses to the outer world, which in turn causes an inner obscurity and lack of self-image. A clear self-image, and the security attendant upon it can come only from involvement and action, and the.most extreme attempts to create a self-image produce the most violent examples of that kind of action which we speak of as being for its own sake.

Colin Wilson's answer to the problem is for man to realise his evolutionary drive, and develop his capacity for 'focusing,' the ability to be alert, sensitive and purposive. In the course of the exposition of these ideas there is a good deal which is of value: in particular, the view that sex should be assimilated to the category of power, rather than vice versa, has always seemed to me far more sensible than the Freudian theory. Maslow's hierarchy of needs also has plausibility, though it may turn out to be no more than a sophisticated version of the old truth that men need a challenge to bring out their full capabilities. And the idea of 'focusing,' of stimulating our powers of perception to avoid stereotyped responses to the world, is at least interesting. Yet all these are ideas that have already been articulated a good deal, and the amount of new material Mr. Wilson offers is virtually nil. His lack of originality would not matter if he were able to put over the ideas in a clear and significant manner. To say this is not to demand an approach of which Mr Wilson disapproves; it is merely to demand work into which more care and thought have been put.