THE ABILITY TO KILL

True Tales of Bloody Murder

By Eric Ambler

Mysterious Press. 214 pp. $15.95

Long ago Thomas De Quincey observed that "something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed -- a knife -- and a dark lane. Design ... , grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment are now deemed indispensable." In "The Ability to Kill," veteran thriller writer Eric Ambler ("A Coffin for Dimitrios") makes his own neat and wry contribution to "true crime" writing, the genre that considers murder as a fine art.

Made up of articles and talks, largely from the late 1950s, Ambler's book runs through some of the best-known poisonings, dismemberings and drownings of the romantic age of murder. Here, for instance, the great Landru kills off with a superb Gallic nonchalance a series of wives and fiance'es, among them a woman named Buisson. He might never have been caught, writes Ambler, but "by one of those outrageous coincidences which make the career of the professional murderer such a heart-breaking business, Madame Buisson's sister, while out walking in Paris, happened to spot a man in the rue de Rivoli whom she recognised as the missing woman's fiance'."

In "The Lizzie Borden Memorial Lectures," Ambler reveals that he once proposed that the locations of famous London murders be marked with red plaques. During the war, he confesses, he was heartbroken "that no special steps whatsoever were being taken to protect ... the left luggage office at Charing Cross Station from enemy attack," aptly describing it as "the trunk murderer's home {away} from home."

Throughout "The Ability to Kill" there are delightful vignettes: J.G. Haigh prepared for his later career -- he did away with at least six people -- by performing "some curious experiments with mice; he found that they could be dissolved in sulphuric acid." Of a now-famous 18th-century murder team, Ambler observes that "to every sort of business enterprise there come, sooner or later, the clear-thinking men who break through the established order of things to achieve a new synthesis ... It was so with Burke and Hare. That night a single thought process illuminated both their minds. If you could get seven pounds ten apiece for dead bodies, why grub about, as the Resurrection Men did, stealing the things? Why not simply manufacture them?"

The Scots, it turns out, were especially adept at poisoning. What male reader could resist the Garboesque Madeleine Smith, who mixed rat poison in her lover's hot cocoa but escaped the noose with the verdict "Not Proven." "Four years after the trial, she married George Wardle, a London artist and an associate of William Morris. She had three children, became a Socialist, started the fashion of using mats on the dinner table instead of a tablecloth, and numbered among her acquaintances the young G.B. Shaw." Madeleine lived to be more than 90, "died in 1928, and was buried under the name of Lena Wardle Sheehy in Mount Hope Cemetery, New York."

Besides such classic crimes Ambler also reports on a modern murder trial ("Dr. Finch and Miss Tregoff") and provides a tongue-in-cheek, and very out-of-date, guide to spy-watching around the world. (Though new here, "The Ability to Kill" was first published in England in 1963.) Obviously cobbled together from magazine journalism, Ambler's collection is still a charmer, and should send many readers off to the old masters of this once-cozy genre: William Roughead, Edmund Pearson and William Bolitho.

The reviewer is an assistant editor of Book World.