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Tod Robbins




by Chris Mikul


In his celebrated essay ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’, the first part of which appeared in 1827, Thomas de Quincy revealed to an unsuspecting public the existence of the Society of Connoisseurs in Murder. “They profess to be curious in homicide, amateurs and dilettanti in various modes of carnage, and, in short, Murder-Fanciers. Every fresh atrocity of that class which the police annals of Europe bring up, they meet and criticize as they would a picture, statue or other work of art.” He went on to reproduce a recent lecture delivered to the society, in which the speaker, while affirming that murder is morally reprehensible, argues that, “it may also be treated aesthetically, as the Germans call it—that is, in relation to good taste.”

The enigmatic Martin, the central character in Tod Robbins’ first novel, would have been an enthusiastic member of such a society. He is a figure who is by turns impressive, frightening, loathsome and pitiable; a writer determined to express the horrors of this world who finds that he lacks an essential quality to do this— imagination. To transform himself into an artist, he must therefore become a monster, or, as he puts it, “It is necessary to tear out the heart so that the head may rise above the stars.”

Robbins’ book has a curious publishing history. It first appeared as Mysterious Martin, published by the J.S. Ogilvie Publishing Company in the U.S. in 1912. It would seem, however, that Robbins was the sort of writer who obsessively rewrites and polishes their work, and after it has been published, can see only the defects in it. A new version of the story, under the title ‘For Art’s Sake’, was included in his 1920 collection Silent, White and Beautiful, published by Boni & Liveright. This is not so much a revised as a completely rewritten and expanded version. The novel appeared in its final form, with further revisions, as The Master of Murder in an edition issued by the British publisher Phillip Allan in 1933. This Ramble House edition brings together the texts of the 1912 and 1933 versions.

Robbins was still at university, an amateur athlete newly married to his first wife, a pretty young socialite, when he began writing Mysterious Martin. Having inherited a fortune from his grandfather, it must have seemed to him that a life of luxury and indulgence lay ahead (and this was largely the case until World War II brought a sudden end to it). The intense and violent tale of Martin is hardly what one would expect from such an apparently carefree young man, although the air of world-weariness it generates is utterly convincing (I particularly like the line “I felt cold shivers run up my spine, and a feeling of deathly nausea crept over me, as I invariably experience in the presence of a corpse,” suggesting that Robbins himself was in almost daily contact with dead bodies). Many of the themes in his later work are presaged in Mysterious Martin. The murder-as-art motif is found most explicitly in the story ‘Silent, White and Beautiful’, while ‘The Confession’ is as chilling an insight you could wish for into the mind of a murder. It’s as if Robbins, right at the beginning of his writing career, knew that he would become known mostly for stories that would be labelled morbid, just like Martin’s, and was trying to work out the implications of it. Of course, these implications extend further than Robbins’ own career. In a world where violent crimes are routinely blamed on movies and computer games, the tale of Martin, who unleashes a crime wave with a book, retains its resonance.

A few of the changes that Robbins made to the novel—most of which were in place in the 1920 version—seem arbitrary (changing Martin’s first name from Sterling to Burgess, for example), but most serve to improve it. The writing is, overall, more assured and focused. The narrative benefits greatly from the inclusion of several new incidents, particularly the unnerving account of the tramp’s murder in Chapter V (which serves to link the book’s narrator, Charlie Smithers, more closely to Martin’s crimes). The ending, too, is notably stronger. Readers who just want to savour a remarkable —and almost lost—horror novel from the early twentieth century should focus on The Master of Murder, but those wanting an insight into the development of Tod Robbins as a writer will find its earlier, somewhat cruder version of interest as well.


For more information on the life of Tod Robbins, see the introduction to Freaks and Fantasies (Ramble House, 2007)

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