Saturday, October 24, 2009

Into the Darkness

Most of us don’t commit murder. No matter how angry, desperate or greedy we feel, there’s almost always an inner “brake” that stops us from taking that final step and deliberately killing another human. Because murder is such a traumatic and violent step to take, it can’t help but affect the killer, just as any other trauma affects a person. Seeing how this happens can make a story much more believable and add an interesting layer to the plot. There are a few ways in which good mystery novels let us see how taking a life affects the person who kills.

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:

I might do it again…I’m not a safe person any longer…It [one of the murders] was quite easy. That’s what’s so horribly, horribly frightening about it. It’s so terribly easy.

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?


  1. I think conscienceless killers can be boring - because the book can, in the wrong author's hands, become rather too mechanical, or too like a jigsaw. I prefer books where the characters are "real", which means that they aren't black or white. However, I could also do without some of those cliches, eg when we see "the mind of the killer" and he's someone whose Dad was absent, whose mother was mean to him or worse, etc....

  2. Maxine - I know exactly what you mean about cliches. In that kind of book, it's almost as though the author chose a "murderer with an abusive past" cookie cutter and stamped out a character. Like you, I prefer books where real characters make the decision to kill and then we see how they react and change because of that choice. That's how real life is, anyway.

    Interestingly enough, when I was reading reviews of Robin Cook's Godplayer, that was one criticism of the book - that the killer was too mechanical. There was the feeling that the killer was too much of a "stock" character. I rather felt that when I read the book, too, although there were enough suspenseful moments to carry me through it. Interesting that you would have brought that same point up.

  3. Hi Margot-Just checking to see if you are still on for doing a forgotten book this coming Friday?
    ( If so I need it by Wednesday. Just paste it right on an email with a brief bio. If this is the wrong week, let me know. I have a bunch of crossouts on that date. Maybe Halloween spirits are at play!

  4. I like both types of murderer. I don't enjoy knowing the killer at the beginning of a book though.

  5. Patti - Not to worry at all - It's exactly the right week, and I'll be all ready for you : ), and I'll be sure you get everything by Wednesday. Thanks for the reminder!

    Glynis - I know what you mean about finding out who the murderer is at the beginning of a book. It's hard to maintain the suspense through a novel if we know who the killer is. It can be done, and there are some good examples of very fine novels that focus on the "cat and mouse" game between the killer and the sleuth. But that's hard to achieve.

  6. Interesting analysis, Margot. Depends totally on my mood but I know I don't, ever, enjoy seeing inside the head of a killer who is remembering horrific childhood trauma or abuse that was a catalyst for his behaviour. I put would put this book down, pronto.
    Thanks for the idea-generating blog. Bobbi

  7. Bobbi - Thanks for commenting; I'm so glad you did. Your point about the effect of childhood trauma on a murderer is especially interesting because it seems to reflect what a lot of mystery fans I've been in touch with seem to think. It can be compelling to read about a character who feels nothing about killing, but most readers get tired of unremitting childhood trauma that "creates monsters." I wonder whether that's a common feeling among mystery fans....

  8. What an interesting post, Margot! The murderer's mind...fascinating. I want his/her motive to make sense, even if it only makes sense in their own minds. No one is going to feel guilt over an act they think is a good one; after all, they've just made the world (or their world) a better place. A planned murder demands a certain level of intelligence. I'd far rather discover a killer who killed because, to them, it was the only logical solution to an issue than one who kills senselessly. As you say, most of us can apply 'the brake'. What happens when someone chooses not to apply it? Or thinks this situation demands someone die?

    Welcome to the way I decide who's the killer...


  9. The book I have just finished The Dead of Winter has a killer who is a hired assassin and then starts killing anyone likely identify him. Most of the plot and motive can be deduced from a prologue and the whole result is unsatisfactory. I would much rather not know the motive or the identity of the killer. But I agree I have read some fine books with a cat and mouse chase.

  10. Elspeth - You put that very well! A believable killer makes the choice to kill because she or he feels that there is no other choice. That desperation, if you want to call it that, changes a character from one who might never otherwise dream of murder to one who becomes a killer. That change, and the way that that kind of murderer's mind works, really is fascinating - to my way of thinking, far more fascinating than many "psychotic killer who's been abused" scenarios. It can be even more chilling to realize that any of us, under the right circumstances, might decide that killing is the only choice we have. Hmmmm...

  11. I like both kinds. Sometimes it's interesting to see someone *evolve* into a consciousless killer (revenge killing, murder of a child abuser, etc.)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  12. Elizabeth - You bring up an interesting layer to a mystery - when the killer starts out having what we call a conscience, but for whatever reason, loses that ability to "put on the brakes," or chooses to ignore those "brakes" because he or she feels that the murder is worth it.