Are things getting worse?

With the depressing news of yet another atrocity, this time against satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, I thought I'd take a moment to ask whether the world is becoming a worse place, at least in terms of mass murder.  Note this is different to serial murder.  A serial killer kills one person, then waits a long time before killing another.  Mass murder is killing many in a short space of time.

I think it is getting worse.  The solo mass murderer, or death delivered by a handful of deranged people, is a modern phenomenon.

I can't recall from the ancient world, or even the mediaeval, or the Renaissance, or even in Elizabethan times, a single instance of mass murder being conducted by one man acting on his own.

The reason is easy to see.  In the time of my hero Nicolaos, the most powerful individual weapon available was a bronze sword.  A nutter could kill at most a few people in the street before being taken down.

And a mass murderer would be taken down quickly.  In a world without a police force, citizens were naturally inclined to intervene when they saw a crime being committed.  Surviving court cases from classical Athens that involve violence in public always mention passers-by running into the action.   Not something you see much these days.

But a modern mass murderer can do a whole lot better than a bronze sword.  The growth in power of lethal force that can be carried by a single individual is incredibly important.

The same nutter today would have a couple of automatic weapons, hundreds of rounds of ammo, a pouch of grenades, and maybe a few bombs to plant. He could kill hundreds.

Then there's the unfortunate fact that there are more people inclined to mass murder.

The population today is 7 billion.   In Nico’s time it was roughly 200 million. The percentage of the population inclined to mass murder is small and probably hasn't changed, but population growth means there are thirty-five times more dangerous maniacs walking the planet today than in the ancient world.

Never mind that there are also thirty-five times more good guys.  Good guys don't commit crimes, good news never moves, and bad news spreads like wild fire.

When you add that many potential mass murderers to the extra lethal technology they can carry, it doesn't look good.

Vicki Leon in the LA Times

The excellent Vicki Leon, who pops in to comment on this blog from time to time, and who wrote Working IX to V, and The Joy of Sexus, today has an opinion piece on the assassination of JFK published in the LA Times.

It's very much worth reading.

Vicki also has a previous piece in the LA Times.  She suggested that killers who do it for the notoriety would be less inclined if there was a perpetual ban on publicizing their crimes or their names.  She uses as her example what happened to the guy who burned down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in 356BC.  (It's the same temple that my heroine Diotima works at in The Ionia Sanction, and it was indeed destroyed by arson).

To find out what they did to him, here is Vicki's article.

Death by theremin in Midsomer County

I'm a big fan of Midsomer Murders, a TV series made by the BBC ITV (thanks Robert for the correction).  Midsomer Murders is full of quirky characters doing the most bizarre things in some of the most picturesque English villages you'll ever see.   Think seriously unhinged Agatha Christie and you've got the right idea.

It also has some distinctive theme music.

What I didn't realize until today is that the theme music is played on a theremin.

What is a theremin, I hear you scream?  It was the world's first electronic musical instrument, invented by a Russian physicist in the 1920s.  It consists of two aerials at right angles to each other.  Put your hand close to one aerial and it raises the pitch.  Putting your hand close to the other raises the volume.  Moving your hands inside the two electromagnetic fields creates music.

So here is Celia Sheen, Britain's foremost classical thereminist, who is in fact the musician you hear in every Midsomer Murder.  I know it looks like she's waving her hands in mid-air, but she really is playing the theremin.

The shark that gave evidence

Back in 1935 in Sydney, Australia, a captured shark was put on display at the beach-side aquarium at a place called Coogee.  This got a lot of attention because sharks are fascinating, and this one was a tiger shark, which is dangerous, aggressive, and rarely taken alive.

People queued to see the shark, and so it was that the shark, eight days later, before a crowd of women and children, suddenly vomited up a human arm.

Needless to say this caused some excitement.

It was assumed the arm belonged to some unlucky swimmer.  Then the forensics people examined it.  They declared that the arm had unquestionably been severed by a sharp implement such as a cleaver before the shark had swallowed it.  This shark had just coughed up evidence of a murder.

Further evidence showed that the body, or at least this arm, had been eaten by a smaller shark.  The smaller shark had almost immediately been eaten by the larger shark, and the larger shark had then been taken alive by a fisherman and put in the aquarium.

You've got to feel sorry for the murderer at this point.  How unlucky can you get?  I really feel quite strongly that the killer had done everything right to hide his crime and if there was any justice in this world he'd have got away with it.

Incredibly, despite having been in the digestive juices of two sharks, the arm still showed a clear tattoo of two boxers, and police were able to get fingerprints.  (I leave to your imagination what fun it must be to collect fingerprints from an arm that's been inside two sharks.)

The arm belonged to one Jim Smith, a small-time crook who, funnily enough, hadn't been seen recently.

It turned out that Jim Smith in addition to being a crook was also a police informer, so he had no shortage of enemies.  The police followed procedure and quickly fixed on two men: a Patrick Brady, another dodgy character with whom Smith was last seen alive, and a Reginald Holmes.  Holmes owned a boat building business -- which must have been very convenient for feeding any unwanted evidence to sharks -- but moreover Holmes was strongly believed to use speedboats built by his company to smuggle drugs into the country from passing cargo ships.  The victim Smith had once worked for Holmes, probably driving those drug-laden speedboats, but the two had since become enemies due to a failed insurance scam.

Police questioned Brady and Holmes but couldn't get quite enough evidence.  Then Holmes drove one of his speedboats into the middle of Sydney Harbour, pulled out a gun and shot himself in the head.

Except he missed.  Holmes fell out of the boat and would have drowned if his arm (ironically) hadn't been caught up in a rope.  He climbed back on board, by which time the water police were chasing him because the pistol shot had attracted their attention.  They got him after a four hour chase.

Back on land, Holmes now agreed to testify against Brady.  Which might have gone well enough, except that on the morning of the inquest, Holmes's body was found slumped over in his car with three gunshot wounds.

Meanwhile, Brady's lawyer argued that without the body, Jim Smith might still be alive, though with an arm missing.  This gets points for imagination if nothing else.

Without sufficient evidence, and with Holmes dead, Brady went free.  If this were a novel then the detective would have formed a close emotional bond with the shark and the two of them would have solved the crime at the last moment, but sadly I must report that the murder remains technically unsolved to this day.