I first came across Colin Wilson while researching a paper on murder back in the late 1970s. Wilson was a criminologist who wrote extensively about crime and murder — about 180 books and 626 articles and other written work as well, including books on philosophy and novels. An End to Murder is his last work, but he died in 2013. His son, Damon, completed the book, which stands as a work on its own and as a memorial to his father.
The book is in three parts, with the first and last by Damon Wilson and the middle section by Colin. I was amazed by the range and breadth of material. Damon Wilson begins in part one by going back to pre-human history. He looks at how we evolved and at different theories of how we came to kill each other, how we came to be bipedal, and even how we became able to hold our breath.
The section written by Colin Wilson took me back to his prior books. He goes over cases he has written about before and adds in some new material. He has written extensively about serial killers, even before we used that term, and notes how the numbers have gone down the past couple of decades. One of the reasons for the decrease, he writes, may be that we don’t give serial killers as much attention as we once did — and he admits that he was one of those who gave the murderers attention.
Here, I thought about how, these days, we tend to focus more on mass killings than on the serial kind. I wondered what Colin Wilson would say about recent events.
Damon Wilson’s sections of the book cover an incredibly broad range of topics on violence in human history. I have rarely come across a work that draws from this many branches of study: anthropology, genetics, psychology, history, and more. He examines slavery and cannibalism. He looks at how the rise of agriculture and cities and industrialization may have affected human behavior. He even delves a bit into the spiritual. And, he looks cross-culturally as well. Reading him, I learned about civil wars in China that killed as many people as world wars — but civil wars I had never learned about in school.
The book has an almost conversational tone, as though a knowledgeable friend were telling us about his theory of human violence, how that violence differs from behavior in other species, and how it has changed over time.
The only error I caught in this vast work was a mention of John Wayne Gacy being in Texas rather than in Chicago. I expect it will be corrected in subsequent editions. And though at times the writing felt a bit like free association, there was always a pattern and reason for the stories and how they unfolded in the text.
Damon Wilson notes that life is actually getting safer these days. You are much less likely to be killed by your fellow man than you were centuries ago, or even just a few decades ago. He cites several possible theories: among them, the removal of lead from gasoline and other products, and a “good apple” theory. He does address terrorism and mass murder, as well as our treatment of the environment and the short- and longterm consequences of that treatment. But he is much more optimistic than our pundits and politicians.
In the end, it is clear that both authors cherish life. Their book will teach you a lot you didn’t know about history and human behavior and violence. You’ll probably question some of the theories, but you’ll definitely come away with a broader perspective.
An End to Murder: A Criminologist’s View of Violence Throughout History
Skyhorse Publishing, November 2015
Hardcover, 592 pages