The Executioner Always Chops Twice: Ghastly Blunders on the Scaffold, by Geoffrey Abbott. St. Martin's Press. 239 pages. $17.95.
Faced with wanton slaughter at home and apparently carefree torture in such venues as Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Cambodia, it's tempting to believe we live in an era of exceptional brutality. Much history tells us otherwise: Cruelties and methods of killing that are now virtually unimaginable were commonplace and condoned by church and state in centuries past. Now Geoffrey Abbott, who served for many years as a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London -- one of history's great official slaughter sites -- has produced his 17th book. Characteristically, it is superbly researched, crisply written and thoroughly fascinating -- unless you are terminally squeamish. Among Abbott's charming sources is the official archive, Newgate Calendar & Malefactors' Bloody Register, which could occur only in Britain. There is more, centuries of it -- all fascinating, at least for those who like such things.