8.17.2017

Murder in Plain English by Michael Arntfield & Marcel Danesi



When I first started studying linguistics I dreamed of being a forensic linguist so that perhaps I could have written this book. That is until I found out there are like 3 of them that get real work in all of Canada and I wasn't committed to a PhD. I'm clearly not willing to work very hard for my dreams.

Michael Arntfield is an ex-cop, a criminology professor at Western University, and a London, Ontario native. I think in all 6 years I studied at Western he taught like, 0 classes I could have taken... this is high on my list of life regrets. Marcel Danesi is a semiotics and linguistic anthropologist at the University of Toronto. Their publishers reached out to us to ask us if we would read and review this after we reviewed Arntfield's 
Murder City (2015). The linguist and true crime fanatic in me took one look at the title and asked if they could ship it express.

Arntfield (left) and Danesi 



This book is nonfiction but it is crazy interesting. The references are recent, relevant, and sometimes Canadian. I would say however, the title and subtitle are a bit misleading: "From Manifestos to Memes- Looking at Murder Through the Words of Killers". I wouldn't entirely say this book is about the written words of murderers, but rather about writing and murder together, including media and pop culture pieces. I, being a media whore, was not the least bit disappointed in this but a true linguist might be.

This book was jam packed with information so I've tried to organize my thoughts and favourite parts in a coherent way... if you haven't already noticed, we tend to ramble when we love a topic.

Murderers and their Writings

While I don't think this was the sole topic of the book the way the title might suggest, there was a lot of information on the writing of murderers and the sheer amount of collected and connected data throughout this book is incredibly impressive. Arntfield and Danesi review journal entries, academic writing, ransom notes, letters to the media, and other forms of messaging left by murderers either before, after, or during their crimes. I think its very cool how linguists and psychologists can put suspect profiles together using the language in these writings. 

I love to read and talk about JonBenet Ramsey. Throughout my childhood, and now, I've had a bizarre interest in this case and I commonly tell people my life's work will be to solve it (lol). Arntfield and Danesi go into a lot of details around linguistics of the ransom note. People have been talking about this ransom note for years because it's extremely confusing. The sum of money requested is the exact amount of Mr. Ramsey's most recent work bonus, for one, JonBenet was also never kidnapped, for two, it's also ridiculously long, for three. Some people speculate that the note was written by a family member after the murder to stage an intruder in the home. 

the JonBenet Ramsey ransom note












In fact, the [JonBenet Ramsey ransom letter], upon our analysis, was found to yield a score on the Flesch-Kincaid scale- a standardized formula for calculating readability- of roughly 40/100. With lower scores being indicative of greater reading difficulty, the note falls somewhere between Time magazine (50/100) and a peer-reviewed academic or scientific journal (30/100) in terms of its grammatical and lexical complexity. Given that the author is clearly college-educated or at the very least well-read, the misspellings are therefore intentional and deceptive, used as clear identity-obfuscation techniques. 

The authors also include some (perhaps unintentionally) humorous analysis such as the fact that foreign factions don't define themselves as 'foreign' and that there's a direct quote from the movie Speed (1994) in the letter ("Don't try to grow a brain John."). There is also some speculation about what S.B.T.C. stands for. Some people say "saved by the cross" others, and my personal favourite, include "stupid bitch take care".

Another case discussed extensively is the Virginia Tech Shootings. Seung-Hui Cho was a student at Virginia Tech with a number of psychological disorders who eventually went on a shooting spree (killing 32 people, injuring 17, and committing suicide). The interesting thing about this case is that Cho submitted a number of very disturbing English assignments previous to this incident, where characters in his short stories committed similar crimes and felt justified doing so. Arntfield and Danesi suggest that perhaps these writings could have been seen as precursors but I'm not so sure... there are lots of very successful authors who write horror fiction (Stephen King, all of the people who write Criminal Minds episodes, etc.) and nobody is worried they are going to start acting on some of their work. At what point do we consider these types of writings suggestive? How do we determine which authors who write disturbing stories are actually disturbed? Should all authors with psychological conditions have their work monitored? Arntfield and Danesi don't comment on this, as they aren't psychologists, but they do a good job of setting a stage for this discussion.

Robert Kardashian reading Simpson's suicide note to the press



They also discuss OJ Simpson's suicide note in detail as well, and we all already know my pathetic obsession with Simpson's case from this review. They apply the Scientific Content Analysis (SCAN) method to the note to determine it's just as much a confession letter as it is a suicide note. Unfortunately, an analysis determining a confession and an actual confession are not equal, which begs the question, is this linguistic analysis actually useful in these situations? I would have enjoyed some commentary from Arntfield on the practicality of these techniques and their current usability in court. 

Murderers and the Media

If you read Murder City, you'll know that most of the information is, by no fault of Arntfield, quite dated (and thank god because I still live here). This is absolutely not the case with this book, and many of the cases are ones I've heard about in the media a ton in my lifetime. The book also describes how the media coverage completely determines how the case is perceived. This is an interesting thing to consider, because we, as citizens, really receive a curated version of each case, never the firsthand evidence. This curation is often vulnerable to political and cultural influences. 




As well, Arntfield and Danesi describe how serial killers in areas with better media outlets are often perceived as more dangerous than serial killers in areas with less media. This can be seen in the notoriety of Jack the Ripper (in London, England), while throughout history there have been far worse villains who have just received less coverage in the media. I really liked this quote on celebrity serial killers, which I think is such an underrated cultural epidemic:

This curious phenomenon appears to have begun... during the decadent 1980's when to be wealthy or notorious, in the absence of any qualities or accomplishments, was grounds for celebrity status. As corporate raiders, televangelists, stock swindlers, and real-estate tycoons flaunted their garish possessions and lifestyles in the public eye, the entire culture of celebrity underwent a re-engineering. Suddenly, it seemed that anyone could be famous for any reason; and, if wealth or genuine talent were out of reach, more depraved steps could be taken to ensure notoriety. One of these was serial murder, as the rise in statistics for murder during that era aptly demonstrate. While the gangsters of the public-enemy era, such as John Dillinger and "Machine Gun Kelly"... earned some degree of romanticized outlaw celebrity, by the 1980's, the rise of the para-celebrity serrial killer convinced the FBI and Congress that serial murder was a major domestic threat facing America, since the usual motives for murder... no longer applied."

This is evident in cases where the killer provokes the media or the police, looking for attention, such as the Zodiac killer. I also learned in this book that it was actually a husband and wife team who crack the Zodiac's code published in the newspaper and I can't think of anything more fun or romantic to do as a couple. 

The curation of cases by the media also allows the media to frame a story, making some cases more emotional for the public than others. An example of this in the book is the Laci Peterson murder, which any North American my age or older will be familiar with.  

The national and even international media attention [Laci Peterson's] case received was so emotionally compelling that some women were said to have faked their own kidnapping in order to garner interest in their otherwise loveless lives."

This concept is so funny but honestly not hard to believe as I feel like we heard about Laci Peterson for months on end, and it's not like she was the first pregnant woman to ever be murdered. If you've ever watched HBO's The Newsroom, you'll understand that the media will continue rolling with a topic that they've got the public invested in, whether it's relevant or not, whether it's the most important thing going on or not. 

Murderers and Pop Culture

There are a lot of pop culture references in this book, mainly because murder is the dominant theme of pop culture globally. It is a theme in all ancient myths and fables, and even today books, movies, and television series related to crime and homicide are especially popular. For something so absolutely horrible, everyone across the world absolutely loves it, how funny eh?

Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis in the 1994 Oliver Stone movie Natural Born Killers



One of the major things I thought was interesting is how fictional pop culture plots from can actually inspire people to murder in real life. The book details how the killers from Columbine actually used the phrase "going N.B.K." in notes to each other, a reference to the movie Natural Born Killers (1994). It seems that some people actually shouldn't be allowed to watch T.V. 

Arntfield and Danesi also talk a lot about the movie Se7en (1995). They discuss how entire plot of that movie is meant to depict how any human is actually capable of murder under the right circumstances:

What is particularly ominous about the final scene of the film is that it suggests that the only appropriate form of justice in this case is visceral and unavoidable... The scene leaves us in a veritable state of moral angst. There seems to be no other way for Mills to come to grips with his tragedy but to enact murderous revenge. An eye for an eye is the biblical way of rationalizing murder; there seems to be no way around this dilemma. Murder is as part of life as is living- an existential oxymoron if there ever was one."

This is definitely something I'll be watching with Meg on our next visit. There is a good point to be made here that under the right circumstances I do believe anyone could justify it to themselves regardless of the law, cultural factors, etc...

Another interesting cultural phenomenon associated with murder is the internet. The authors talk a lot about how the internet is actually a dream tool for killers, allowing them to not only plan and discuss their crimes anonymously, but also as a venue to lure victims and exercise act on some of their paraphilias. Every time society creates innovative technology, we have to consider how it can be innovative for sociopaths as well, HOW SCARY?

Murderers and Psychology

Louis C. K. has this great joke that I love about how the law against murder is the number one thing preventing murder... how fucked is that? You would think... psychologically... that we would not WANT to murder people... What this book talks about a LOT, which I didn't expect, was the psychological element behind some of these murderers as shown through writing.

Something that's particularly interesting is that a lot of sociopathic killers aren't afraid of their inevitable punishments. They either believe they are so superior they cannot be punished, or the actual punishment (jail, the death penalty, losing their lifestyle) doesn't actually matter to them. The authors talk about 'hubris' which is a fun term I learned for excessive self-confidence that ultimately leads to self destruction. Most sociopaths possess hubris... I think Meg and I also do. 

This lack of concern for punishment was demonstrated in the book through some of the famous last lines of serial killers before their executions. These included "going to the electric chair will be the supreme thrill of my life" (Albert Fish) and "you can kiss my ass" (John Wayne Gacy). 

THE scene from The Godfather (1972). You don't fuck with the family.


The book also talks a lot about the way particular groups of people or individuals can rationalize their murders. As an anthropologist Danesi has a lot to offer in this area and I was very interested in these parts of the book. For example, mafia killers firmly believe in an eye for an eye mentality. Killing someone who has harmed their family is absolutely just to them and no law will make them feel guilty or remorse. We all remember the infamous scene from The Godfather (1972) where prodigal son Michael Corleone kills Sollozzo in the Italian restaurant for even attempting to kill his father.

I really liked this quote on rationality:

It is said that murder is irrational; and yet, it is also thought to be 'normal' to the murderer, as the analysis of the writings, of various murderers has revealed... Rationality, it might be argued, is a construct; it varies according to place and time and is historically relative.... The truth is that when we strip away culturally arbitrary notions of normality and irrationality, we are left with a true paradox: once killing for survival is transformed into murder for some 'reason,' anyone is capable of murder- depending on the circumstances."

This is also the case in a lot of sexual related violence:

Femicide (the murder of women because they are women) happens everywhere, no matter what kind of society and political system in which women live... The number of studies on the phenomenon of femicide is extensive. There is one study in particular that is pertinent to the present discussion; that is the book When Men Murder Women, by Rebecca and Russell Dobash. The book is based on interviews, over a ten-year period, of men serving life sentences in British prisons for killing women. .. The interviewees seemed to believe that they literally had an intrinsic right to possess their sexual partners..."

Can anyone guess which book I just added to my reading list???

The last thing I found really interesting is the concept of team killings. The book discusses a theory that had those two people never met, the murders wouldn't have taken place, as though it's the weird chemical reaction between the two that gives them permission to act on their urges. The opposing theory is that one part of a partnership is always a victim to psychological dominance by the other. After reading In Cold Blood, I don't think either murderer was a victim, but I also think the murders would have happened even had Hickock not recruited Smith. I know personally, I've said some things out loud that I wouldn't have dared if I had never met Meg so I definitely understand that sometimes the right person can provide the right space to think, say and do particular things, but does this extend as far as murder? I'm not sure. I think someone capable of murder will murder with or without the right person. But what do I know I am not an expert I just read one book...

Hickock and Smith, the famous team killers from Capote's In Cold Blood (1966)


In the end I was really impressed with this book. It was informative and entertaining, but also easily understood by me, an undereducated yet self-proclaimed criminologist. It is also extremely humbling to read such important work by two very local academics. I did read about a bit of drama with some of the content and how Arntfield got a hold of it... but this just makes me like the book more. I personally can not wait for more writing from Arntfield because it's incredibly well re-searched and I love the familiar examples and references. I also appreciated the objectivity, because if I was to write a book like this is would end up being 90% about the JonBenet Ramsey case, 8% about the O.J. Simpson case and 2% about all other cases. Arntfield and Danesi focus on their message and pull in examples as they are relevant. 

I think in the end, Murder City was more interesting to me because I live in London, but if you're from somewhere else this is definitely a better book to begin with. It's less technical and is relatable to a wider audience. Any true crime buffs would like this book, or anyone who watches a lot of crime T.V. and wants to give a book a try. If you're approaching this from a linguistic perspective you may be disappointed, but I still think you'd enjoy the content. 

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