Fresh off a plane from Blighty, Warren Ellis joined Geoff Manaugh to discuss areas of their expertise, "Hit Men, Burglars, Secret Agents, and Thieves" for an event held at Studio-X in New York City under the auspices of Columbia University. Ellis was celebrating the release of his new e-book, Dead Pig Collector, and Manaugh (EIC of Gizmodo) discussed the contents of his ongoing book project on burglary and architecture, and they were moderated in discussion by John Sellers of New York Magazine's Vulture. The anecdotes and commentary they provided made for an evening of dark merriment and their stories were full of the exceptionally weird. Ellis and Manaugh brought to light bizarre accounts human behavior that stretched the boundaries of belief as true crime invaded the packed studio space. Fans were, of course, rapt with attention, but awed silence gave way to fascination and even hilarity regarding the criminally-minded subject matter.
Here is a selection of excerpts from the event for your edification, with full and fairly clear audio recording below:
Warren Ellis: I got elected to be the murder person somehow. If we're going to talk about murder, we have to talk about Mogo. Mogo was a farmer in Kenya in 1929. He was a squatter farmer which meant that he worked on the land owned by a land owner. And he had the right to raise his own livestock and build a hut along with the other squatter farmers. And one day in 1929, Mogo had a very bad day. Because his contract was severed by the land owner because he was a wizard. Mogo was a wizard and people didn't like that…People were complaining because, after all, he was a fucking wizard…So Mogo went back to the little squatter farmer village to collect his stuff and go to the hut of the first person there who had accused him of being a wizard and killed him with a spear. And then he killed his wife with a spear, his daughter with a spear, and then nine other people with a spear. Which, of course, raised alarm. The land owner sent for the local police.
The local police arrived to find Mogo gathering up his livestock, and they said, "Mogo, you are a wizard and appear to have killed quite a lot of people". Mogo quite cheerfully showed them the corpses of the twelve people he had killed, and then he quite cheerfully turned to the land owner and demanded his severance pay before he left. Because Mogo was a murderer and murderers are all about making their lives better. This is the root of murder. We kill people because they annoy us. You look at most non-pathological murder cases, and it's about someone removing someone else from their lives who is impairing their ability to live happily. In Mogo's case, all these people had called him a fucking wizard. And, in fact, his wife wouldn't sleep with him anymore, because he was a wizard. And his daughter wouldn't give him food anymore because he was a wizard. And he knew that if he left these people alive, the rumor would have followed.
In order to live happily, in order to improve his quality of life, he needed to kill twelve people and he did. This is what murders do. They are the impassioned hobbyists of the field of death. But it comes down to murder is the exertion of will against the things that make your life that which you don't want. To improve how you live. Most murders are about making the murderer happier. We kill the people who bug us, who bog us down and make our lives sad, and dark, and dull, and gray, and flat. These are the people we kill. Which is why most murder is domestic. Because the person we kill pisses us off. And this why Agatha Christie always said, "Murder is easy".
Geoff Manaugh: Burglary is about getting something that you want that's guarded by architecture. I realized over the years that while that architects thinks they are the only ones thinking about…built space. But the burglar rethinks the architectural environment in an interesting way, unpuzzling how you get from A to B. If you start pulling on the string of the sweater there and start seeing the burglar as an urban expert, it takes you some pretty interesting places…You start getting into this almost interdimensional weave of surfaces that are being argued between lawyers and cops. Burglary is turning into this insane mathematical exercise for generations to come. Burglary is now encompassing the movement of human beings through space in a really fascinating way. The idea is that we have to define what burglary might be. Pursuing where these arguments might go, you get into this sphere of breaking and entering, of finding buildings that have outer perimeters, if I go under a roof, am I burglarizing or simply trespassing in your yard? Burglary is this really undefined thing.
Geoff Manaugh: Another case of burglary is a "man in a bag" burglary. There were these two guys in Barcelona and they came up with possibly the dumbest fucking plan I've ever heard. One of them would lock himself in a suitcase, a very heavy suitcase, mind you. And the other guy would take him to the airport, put it onto the thing, and as this thing was going out to the airplane, he would unzip himself, out of the suitcase. He also had empty duffel bags, and he'd rifle through everyone else's bags and take their valuables, then get back into the suitcase. The two disturbing things about this is that it never worked. They were arrested. Not even one attempt was successful. But the other disturbing thing about this is that I read about it because it was used as a geometry challenge in a childrens' textbook. You had to calculate, based on the size of the burglar, the internal volume of the suitcase. As a geometry exercise. It was called, "The burglar in the suitcase".
On Hit Men
Warren Ellis: Hit men. I just wrote a short story about hit men, Dead Pig Collector. The professional side of death. People who kill people but do really care about being caught, because they want to keep doing it because they are paid for it. The hit men, the assassins. "Assassin" is the corruption of Hashishin. The story went that they were called the Hashishin because they used hashish. Apparently that's not true. Marco Polo made that up. It means something else. It means, "without any explanation" because they were hit men operating in public in broad daylight. That was their innovation. If they decided someone needed to be killed, they would do it. They were about death without any explanation, which relates to terrorism. They were grand masters of assassins.
The training was handed down, and by the time it got to Europe, it was corrupted to "assassin" which was taken to mean professional murderer. Professional hit men, unfortunately, get hit by someone else when they are no longer useful, and they know too much because they have been working for the same organizations too long. I have more sympathy with the professional killers than I do with the murderers because they are just there to do a job. It's a service. And you have to assume that most of the people they killed were annoying anyway.
On True Crime and Fiction
Warren Ellis: What happens to me most often is that I think of something that I think is fiction, and then two months later it happens. Let me tell you that is really fucking annoying. If you're looking for the one thing that makes me want to kill, it's "I thought of this and it came true before I could publish it". That's frustrating. I never read fiction when I'm writing. I only read non-fiction. Because I'm constantly aware that firstly, I need to convince an editor that what I'm writing is feasible. And secondly, I need to know when to pull a piece because it's happened.
On Favorite Crime Stories
Question from Dean Haspiel (Brooklyn-based cartoonist on The Fox, Billy Dogma): What's your favorite murder fiction or burglary fiction, movie or novel?
Warren Ellis: That's a tough one. I used to love the early John Woo films which were mostly about hitmen, cops, and this wonderful myth they promulgated that in any movie it only takes one bullet to kill a white guy but if you're an Asian it's going to be upwards of 200. White guys are shit but Asian guys are the hardest men on earth. I always loved that. Hard Boiled. The last hour and ten minutes is just Chow Yun-fat getting shot. Perversely, The Name of the Rose. It is a murder story, but it's tied up in such peculiar religious hate. And illustrates so well the oddest things that some people will consider murder-worthy in others. Simply being able to laugh. In someone's world, that makes you worth killing.
Geoff Manaugh: One is the premise of a book. The Score by Donald Westlake. A little isolated town in Montana with one road in and one road out. And they can rob the whole town so that's what they do. They rob the whole fucking town. One of my favorite heist movies is actually Die Hard. I think it's an amazing movie. And, in fact, every aspect of the movie is a misuse of a skyscraper in a really amazing way. They go down elevator shafts, they go through air ducts instead of hallways. They shoot their way through other construction. And on top of that he jumps off the roof and comes back in through a window. It's as if you assembled a whole bunch of people who had no idea how to use a building. And turned that into an action film.
And here's the full audio track from the event:
Hannah Means-Shannon is Senior New York Correspondent at Bleeding Cool, writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org, and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress. Find her bio here.