In some mystery novels, the really interesting point is that the murder doesn’t seem to affect the killer. This can be fascinating in an almost morbid way, because it’s hard to imagine a person who’s so cold that taking a life doesn’t matter. It’s an interesting study in psychology. For instance, in Robin Cook’s Godplayer, Dr. Cassandra “Cassi” Kingsley, a psychiatry resident, learns of a series of unexplained deaths following what’s supposed to be routine heart surgery. As Cassi and her friend Robert Seibert, a pathology resident, start to make sense of these puzzling deaths, they soon realize that there’s a deliberate killer behind the scenes. As Cassi gets closer and closer to the truth, the reader realizes that this particular killer has no regard for individual humans as people. While the novel itself is arguably not one of Cook’s best works, it paints an intriguing portrait of a murderer who seems completely unaffected by the reality of having taken life.
One of the most fascinating portraits of a killer without a conscience is in Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgeware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), in which Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the murder of Alfred George St. Vincent Marsh, 4th Baron Edgeware. As they look for the truth behind the murder, two other deaths occur. When Poirot finally puts all of the pieces of the puzzle together, the reader realizes that all along, the deaths have not mattered at all to the killer. In fact, at the end of the novel, the killer sends a letter to Poirot that outlines exactly how the murders occurred and makes it clear that the murderer isn’t in the least remorseful. In fact, Hastings describes the killer as “completely conscienceless.”
Novels in which the killer isn’t in the least bit affected by murdering are engrossing because we want to understand how someone could take a life and not be affected by that act. They have an appeal because they let us glimpse the mind of someone who for whom killing means nothing, and that can be gripping when it’s done well. But most of the time, committing murder has devastating effects on the killer. And in a way, it’s easier for the reader to identify with a killer who is wrenched from his or her comfortable life by the reality of having murdered. So novels in which the killer is traumatized and changes drastically as a result of killing have their own kind of appeal.
Very often, when someone kills, particularly for the first time, he or she feels a tremendous amount of guilt. We see that in Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Wasn’t There. That novel focuses on a small group of people who take a trip to Scotland. While they’re there, one of them dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances. At first, the death seems to be of natural causes, but when other mysterious events happen, Jim Qwilleran, Braun’s sleuth, begins to suspect foul play. He and the rest of the group of tourists return to their hometown of Pickax, where Qwilleran does some investigating and eventually finds out the truth behind the death. What’s fascinating in this story is the killer’s reaction to having been responsible for murder. The guilt of having killed someone leads the murderer to a very unexpected choice, especially given the personality of the killer. It’s a solid example of how killing someone can change a person.
Another, quite realistic reaction is panic and paranoia, even when the killing was planned. The killer often has an almost morbid fear that someone else may find out about the killing. So it’s an almost natural reaction to try to hide any evidence of the murderer’s identity. That’s what makes the killer in Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle a very human character. In that novel, famous fashion designer Sheila Grey is murdered late one night. As Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, investigate the case, they find a very small group of suspects: millionaire Ashton McKell, who was Sheila’s lover, Lutecia McKell, his wife, and Dane McKell, his son, who also falls in love with Sheila. Along with the intellectual challenge of making sense of the clues in this novel, it’s also interesting to see how the killer manipulates the clues to hide the evidence. It’s not until the end of the story that we really see how it was done, when the killer admits everything. At that point, the reader can understand the killer’s rising panic and determination not to be found out, and can almost admire what the killer does to avoid being caught.
Panic and fear very often also lead to the murderer striking again. That’s what happens in Louise Penny’s Still Life. In that novel, Inspector Armand Gamache is sent to investigate the death of Jane Neal in what looks like a tragic bowhunting accident. He comes to the conclusion that Neal’s death, far from being an accident, was a murder. Gamache and his men work their way towards the truth. So does one of the other characters in the novel. When that character gets too close to what really happened, the killer prepares for another murder. Penny doesn’t reveal just how paranoid the killer is right away, and that makes this particular scene even more suspenseful.
Panic causes a second murder in Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, too. When the wife of a prominent archeologist is murdered, Hercule Poirot breaks his journey from Syria back to England to investigate. The killer feels safe until one of the other characters puts the pieces of the murder puzzle together and suddenly realizes what must have happened. Soon after that, the murderer kills again. At the end of the novel, after Poirot reveals the truth, the killer admits this effect of paranoia and says this of the second murder:
I’m sorry about____. That was bad – senseless – it wasn’t me…it was fear.
Fear and panic also lead to multiple murders in Death on the Nile. In that novel, beautiful, wealthy socialite Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is shot late one night while on a honeymoon cruise up the Nile. Hercule Poirot, who happens to be on the same cruise, investigates the murder and works his way towards the truth. Meanwhile, another murder, directly related to the first, occurs. When another character figures out who must have killed both people, the killer strikes yet again. At the end of the novel, the killer admits that main reason for that last murder was panic.
Death on the Nile also highlights one of the most frightening changes that comes over someone who has killed – the next murder gets easier. In fact, Hercule Poirot warns us in several of Christie’s novels that a person who has killed once will likely kill again. Sometimes it’s out of fear, but it’s also because it gets easier and easier to take a life. Here’s how the killer in Death on the Nile puts it:
What’s your view? Do you find the idea of a conscienceless killer fascinating? Do you prefer novels where the reader really sees how a killer changes after taking a life?