Last month, I posted an item on The Toady’s Handbook by William Murrell, a satirical D. I. Y. guide on how to succeed through concerted obsequiousness. Murrell’s book was part of a trilogy of sly little self-help books published by Grant Richards and Humphrey Toulmin back in 1929. Of remaining two, Charles Duff’s A Handbook on Hanging was rescued a few years ago as a New York Review Classic. The Young Person’s Complete Guide to Crime, by Charles Garfield Lott Du Cann, however, shares a common state of neglect with Murrell’s book.
The three books take a contrarian view of their subjects. Murrell argues, quite convincingly, that toadying is not only an effective way to gain a secure and influential place, but the only sane way to approach life as a member of society. Duff disparages those who would abolish hanging as cruel and offers a defense of its merits as both deterrent and art-form. And Du Cann holds that “the real truth is that crime is a highly respectable, semi-skilled, sheltered occupation,” one “reasonably accessible to the ambitious” and to be commended to the young.
A barrister and member of Gray’s Inn, Du Cann clearly took an impish delight in his tongue-in-cheek argument. Perhaps a little too much–for the book quickly veers down a side street and Du Cann spends most of the work skewering the ways and players of the British system of justice rather than noting the advantages of a life of crime. One gets the sense that the profession Du Cann referred to in his expansive subtitle is that of the law, not crime.
In fact, one of the primary advantages to becoming a criminal, according to the book, is that prison isn’t such a bad place to end up if you do get caught. That’s a little like recommending a restaurants by saying, “If you do get food poisoning, it won’t be too bad.” Du Cann does score a point, however, in noting that, for older men without fortune or family–at least in the England before the time of social welfare–prison offered a safer and healthier alternative to anything else life could offer.
Aside from this Swiftian advocacy of life in prison, however, the main pleasures of The Young Person’s Complete Guide to Crime are the epigrams Du Cann tosses in as asides to his mocking commentary. “When a respectable Englishman is convinced that there is nothing more to be done he always writes to the Times. It is the last gesture of despair and disillusionment,” he observes in the midst of a discussion of whether all or just almost all persons brought before court are guilty. (Du Cann sides with the “all guilty” camp).
He also offers, at the end, his own variant on Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary:
- ACCUSED (THE). Indispensable raw material of the industry. Often manufactured by the industry itself.
- HEARING IN COURT. A talking match. Hence the name.
- SEX-OFFENDER. A male.
Of the three books in Richards & Toulmin’s set, Du Cann’s has aged most poorly in terms of subject and is least suitable for export. Occasionally, though, a still-relevant observation leaps off the page:
Expert Witnesses are often highly-paid, and they are expected to be (and are) entirely unscrupulous. It is true that Expert Witnesses are more frequently employed in civil than criminal proceedings, but the world of crime has a great use for them in deciphering hand-writing, detecting poisoning, and the like. The expert witness is not (as his name seems to say) an expert in giving testimony (that is called a policeman) but a man who considers himself, and is put forward as being, an authority on the matter upon which he testifies. He speaks to opinions, not to facts, but of course he tries to make the Court accept his opinions as facts.
Although only a slight jest, The Young Person’s Complete Guide to Crime remains entertaining today on the merits of Du Cann’s amusing and self-deprecating commentary. Du Cann wrote at least a dozen other books, but most of them appear to have been taken up as escapes from the duties of his life as a working lawyer. He seems to have been quite adept at adapting his arguments to his clients and subjects–how else can you explain the same man writing Getting the Most Out of Life and Will You Rise From The Dead? An Enquiry Into the Evidence of Resurrection?