Friday, December 4, 2009

The Razor's Edge

In real life, many people associate killing – especially killing more than one person – with madness. After all, would a psychologically healthy person actually plan and carry out a murder? Or more than one murder? Can a person have that much disregard for human life without being at least a little crazy? Of course, there are horrible stories of mass murderers who are criminally insane. In crime fiction, too, there are plenty of stories where the killer is a psychopath. Those stories can be compelling if they’re well-written. That kind of killer, though, is comparatively rare. What’s far more interesting in real life and in crime fiction is that razor’s edge between mental health and a complete break with mental stability. Sometimes, living in that “gray area” can drive a person to murder. Sometimes, an otherwise “normal” person gets pushed over the borderline because of a murder. Either way, that kind of murderer can make us ask ourselves: what really “counts” as sanity? How far are we from that borderline?

In some crime fiction, the killer is/becomes a murderer precisely because he or she is too close to that borderline between mental stability and madness. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Three-Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Stephen Babbington, a likeable clergyman, is poisoned at a cocktail party at which Hercule Poirot is also a guest. Porirot is asked by his host, Sir Charles Cartwright, to investigate the murder, and he and Mr. Satterthwaite, another of Christie’s protagonists, begin to search for the truth. Then, another death occurs – in exactly the same fashion – at another house party. When Poirot discovers who the murderer is, and uncovers the reason for the deaths, we see that this killer’s been on the borderline of madness for quite some time.

That’s also true in Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, in which Poirot investigates the murder of Joyce Reynolds, a young teenager, at a community Hallowe’en party. Poirot goes to Woodleigh Common, where the murder occurred, and begins to search for the truth. As he finds out more and more, it’s clear that Joyce’s murder is connected with an earlier disappearance and murder, and that the killer has no qualms about striking again. After another murder, Poirot realizes he has very little time before the murderer strikes yet again. At the end of the novel, we find out that Poirot’s matching wits with a murderer who’s never been mentally stable.

In Robin Cook’s Godplayer, there’s another interesting example of a killer whose murderers are very much the result of being on the razor’s edge between madness and sanity. In that novel, Dr. Cassandra “Cassi” Kingsley, a psychiatry resident at a prestigious Boston hospital, finds out about a series of unexplained deaths following what was supposed to have been routine heart surgery. She and her friend Dr. Robert Seibert, a pathology resident, try to make sense of the deaths. Before long, Cassi realizes that she’s on the trail of a ruthless killer. The closer Cassi gets to the truth, the more her own life is in danger. In many of Robin Cook’s novels, the killer turns out to be a person whom we might argue is amoral, but not mad. In this particular novel, though, the killer turns out to be already mentally unstable. Although arguably not one of Cook’s finest works, it’s an interesting psychological study of someone who’s on that razor’s edge between sanity and mental instability.

Even closer ot the razor’s edge of insanity is the killer in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which features Harvard historian Robert Langdon. Langdon is summoned to the Louvre to help solve the mystery of the murder of curator Jacques Saunière. When Langdon arrives, he finds codes and symbols that suggest that Saunière’s death is related to the ancient Knights of the Templar and the centuries-old search for the Holy Grail. Throughout the novel, Langdon and his companion, Sophie Neveu, are pursued by a killer who, as it turns out, has always been unbalanced. What’s interesting about this novel is that we get to see part of the action through the killer’s eyes, and this gives the reader a sense of what it’s like to be on the brink of madness.

There are also, of course, those who are pushed (or driven) to that razor’s edge because of a murder that they’ve committed. In fact, Agatha Christie treats this topic in more than one book. For instance in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), Hercule Poirot investigates the death of Richard Abernethie, the wealthy patriarch of the Abernethie family. When the family gathers after his funeral, Abernethie’s sister, Cora Lansquenet, hints that her brother was murdered. At first, the other members of the family remonstrate with Cora, but secretly, they begin to wonder, since Cora has a history of blurting out unwelcome truths. When Cora herself is brutally murdered the next day, there seems no doubt that she was right. Poriot investigates both murders with the help of Mr. Entwhistle, the family attorney. When the murderer is revealed, it turns out that committing the murder has driven the killer “over the edge.” In fact, at the end of the novel, Mr. Entwhistle reports that the murderer’s been sent to an insane asylum and is quite happily making future plans – as if the murders had not occurred.

There’s also an interesting study of a character driven to the razor’s edge in Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Wasn’t There. In that novel, Jim Qwilleran, Braun’s sleuth, travels to Scotland with a group of fellow residents of the small town of Pickax. While they’re there, Irma Hasselrich, the tour leader, suddenly dies. At first, her death is put down to heart failure, but Qwilleran soon comes to believe that she was murdered. Qwilleran’s a former investigative reporter and now a columnist, so he’s always curious about the unexplained. When he returns to Pickax, Qwilleran begins to look into Irma’s past to try to find out who murdered her. As Qwilleran gets closer to the truth, he realizes that Irma’s death is related to a number of odd thefts in Pickax. By the time he’s found out who the murderer really is, Irma’s killer has been pushed to the limits of mental health and makes a surprising decision.

In The Killing Club, co-written by Michael Malone, we also see an interesting character study of how killing can drive a person towards the proverbial precipice of madness. A group of high school students calling themselves The Killing Club, puts together a Death Book, a book of ways that they would kill people they don’t like. The club breaks up after the suicide of one of its members. Eerily, that suicide mimics one of the Death Book’s scenarios. The club members go their separate ways for ten years. Then, one of the members is killed; his death, too, replicates a murder described in the The Death Book. When the rest of the club members gather for the funeral, another death occurs. Jamie Ferrara is a former member of the club, now a police officer for the New Jersey town where the deaths occurred. She and her boss investigate the deaths and find out that they’re all connected to a long-ago incident. When Ferrara learns the truth, we learn that having been involved in that long-ago tragedy has driven the killer to the razor’s edge of insanity.

Sometimes, it’s not easy to tell whether a killer’s always been too close to the edge of sanity, or whether killing is what pushes the murderer that far. That’s the case in Rita Mae Brown’s Rest in Pieces, which features her sleuth, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, postmistress of Crozet, Virginia.. When pieces of a body begin to show up in different places in town, the locals blame Blair Bainbridge, the town’s newest arrival and Harry’s neighbor. Harry’s not so sure, though, so she begins to investigate. Soon, another body turns up, this time on Blair’s farm; still, Harry’s convinced that someone else is responsible for the deaths. When Harry finds out who really committed the murders, it turns out that the killer has always seethed inside. And yet, it’s the murders that seem to have pushed the killer over the edge, so to speak. At the climactic point in the novel, the killer tells Harry, “Kill me, because if I get to you, I’ll kill you.”

That’s similar to the reaction of the killer in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, in which Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of beautiful, rich socialite Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, who’s shot during a honeymoon cruise up the Nile. Poirot is on the same cruise, so he’s asked to help find the killer. By the time he finds out who the killer is, two more people are dead. The killer realizes the effect of the murders and even confesses, “I’m not safe.” In some ways, the killer in this novel has always been a little “on the edge.” Yet, the fact of killing has driven the killer to the precipice of insanity. There’s actually a fascinating discussion in this particular novel about how killing affects the killer.

In many crime novels, of course, the killer isn’t anywhere near that razor’s edge. But in novels where the killer is closer to the edge, that borderline world between mental health and a break with sanity can add a fascinating layer of suspense and interest.

Do you agree? Do you enjoy novels that explore that borderline? Or do you prefer novels where the killer is a perfectly balanced individual who kills for a prosaic reason such as gain or safety?


  1. I like plots that go both ways. If an author does it right, pushing the killer to the borderline adds an extra bit of suspense. The trick is to keep the killer balancing back and forth just enough to make you wonder which way he or she is going to go.

    At other times it's interesting to read where a killer just kills to gain fortune and fame.

  2. Mason - You put that quite well. When the author makes the reader wonder what the killer is going to do, that adds to the suspense. I think it also adds to the suspense if we see the tension that builds up as the killer gets pushed closer and closer to the borderline. That's the beauty of novels like that.

  3. I like both. And *SOME*times I like to read about a psychopath, but not very often. They're less interesting because they're not really human. I like human foibles and the idea that we could all, for a split second, be tempted to go over the edge.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. We had a great lecture at "Bloody Words" in Ottawa this past June. Brad Kellin, thriller author and forensic psychologist, gave a lecture and took questions from the mystery writers and readers. Gave us lot insight into what constitutes psychopathy and talked a fair bit about studies of certain business leaders who exhibit a good many traits of psychopathy. As a reader I enjoy both the criminally insane villain and those who kill for money, revenge, etc. In my work as a University event planner I am working on a big conference for June of 2010 -"Symposium on Violence and Aggression". Especially looking forward to chatting with 300 forensic psychologists and Corrections personnel. Fun stuff! Thanks for this, Margot. A good way to start my Saturday! :-)

  5. Elizabeth - You put your finger on exactly what it is, I think, that draws the reader to novels that explore that razor's edge. Any one of us could, given the right circumstances, be pushed to the brink. We can identify with people in that situation. In a way, identifying with someone pushed to the brink is a lot more eerie, because we're not necessarily so different...

    Bobbi - That lecture must have been wonderful! I've heard of Brad Kelling (though I confess I haven't read his work), and heard good things about his writing. I'll bet you all learned a lot from his visit. It is, indeed, absolutely fascinating to think about how the mind works, and how it is that many people remain mentally balanced, etc., but some people....don't. Your symposium sounds exciting, too! I would just love to tap some of those brains for my writing, and I'll bet you'll enjoy that, too. Thanks for sharing about it.

  6. I'm not too keen on the crazed killer who is apparently sane, as it runs into cliche. It can be done well if original - I liked Mo Hayder's first two novels which were strong medicine but good, and which pushed this theme. Other times, I've closed the book half way through. As an ex-scientist, I also groan inwardly at books where the apparently sane person is actually, guess what, a mad scientist intent on blowing up the world, releasing a lethal microorganism, or as in the example you give of Robin Cook, putting people into a coma so their organs could be provided to rich people with various illnesses. (But that book was jolly good, I think - it is just the countless imitations since. And Cook became a bit of a shadow of his former self in later novels.)

  7. Maxine - You're absolutely right about how cliche it can easily become to have a crazed killer who appears sane. Hayder did do that well, and Cook did, too, in the first few novels. I liked his way of portraying a killer as perfectly sane, but so amoral and so focused on some research or other kind of goal that all humanity is gone. In the early novels, it raised lots of important ethical questions. You're right, though, that Cook's last several novels don't have that edge.