Wednesday, December 16, 2009

You cannot make an omelet....

…without breaking eggs. That old saying means that sacrifices sometimes have to be made for a larger goal. What it also means, at least in crime fiction, is that those who are committed to what they see as larger goals may be willing to sacrifice anything – including other lives – to achieve those ends. There’s a real risk, as we’ll see, in putting larger goals ahead of the worth of human life, and lots of crime fiction explores this issue. You could say that these novels are object lessons in the danger of forgetting the human. I’m not talking here of the proverbial psychotic killer who believes that s/he’s divinely appointed to kill. Instead, I’m talking about people who supplant the value of human life with other values. For this kind of killer, there’s nothing personal about killing – it’s just necessary to achieve a goal.

Sometimes, that larger goal is political. There are many political thrillers (spy thrillers, too) that deal with the consequences of putting political goals ahead of the human. Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon novels often feature this kind of killing. Allon is an art restorer. He also happens to be an assassin who works for a shadowy Israeli Intelligence agency called The Office. He’s often called in when the political stakes are high. For example, in The Messenger, Allon’s asked to go to the Vatican to help with security when it’s discovered that a fanatic Islamic militant group is planning to destroy the Vatican. Allon’s not in time to prevent the attack because the group has already infiltrated the Vatican. After the first wave of killings, Allon and his colleagues find out who’s behind this plot, and Allon’s assigned to get close to the group’s leader and kill him before he can commit any more murders. The murders (on both sides) in this novel aren’t as much personal as they are means to an end.

The same is true in Vince Flynn’s Term Limits, in which three powerful Washington politicians are murdered by a group of rogue military commandos who claim that all politicians are corrupt, and demand that power be restored to the American people. The group threatens to continue killing politicians until their demands are met. Junior Cogressman Michael O’Rourke, a former Marine, thinks that he recognizes the “stamp” of the killings as that of members of the U.S. Special Forces. He teams up with the FBI to find out who the killers are and stop them. He’s conflicted about it, though, because he feels that most members of the government are corrupt, and that the assassins have a point. Some people argue that this isn’t Flynn’s best work, but it is an excellent example of impersonal murders that are committed to achieve a goal, rather than for a private reason, such as fear, love or an inheritance.

In Agatha Christie’s The Big Four, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are up against a group of four powerful conspirators who are bent on world domination. Several people seem to know about the Big Four, as these conspirators are called, including a man called Mayerling, a former Secret Service agent, who tries to warn Poirot about the group, and is murdered just after he’s passed on his warning. A fisherman named Jonathan Whalley is also murdered after he tries to send a warning about the group, and an English scientist named Halliday is taken captive. The members of the Big Four have no personal reasons for murder and kidnap; their goal of world domination is much more important to them than is the value of a human’s life.

We also see this kind of impersonal approach to murder in many of Robin Cook’s medical thrillers. In Contagion, for instance, Cook’s sleuths Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery have noticed a series of unexplained deaths from a particularly virulent strain of influenza that hasn’t made an appearance since just after the turn of the 20th Century. All of the deaths occur at Manhattan General Hospital, and Stapleton, in particular, is soon on the trail of whatever might be killing those patients. When he finally discovers who’s behind the killings, it becomes clear that the murderer has no personal reason for killing those particular patients. In fact, the murderer doesn’t even know the patients. Instead, the killings have been committed as part of a larger plan that involves the hospital and a large managed-health care company.

There’s a particularly chilling example of murder-for-a-cause in John D. McDonald’s The Green Ripper, which features his sleuth, Travis McGee. McGee has found love with Gretel Howard, whom he met in The Empty Copper Sea. The two are planning a future together when Gretel dies suddenly of what looks like a fatal illness. McGee soon realizes, though, that it’s a very deliberately planned murder, and that the group responsible is a Northern California cult group called the Church of the Apocrypha. McGee goes undercover and pretends to join the group, so as to find out who was responsible for Gretel’s death, and stop the group. What he finds is that the members of this group believe that destroying civilization will free them up for a better life. The murders they cause are not personal; rather, they are the means to the group’s goal of disrupting civilization.

Sometimes, the goals that the murderer wants to achieve are more personal, but the murders themselves are still just a means to an end – they’re not an end in themselves. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Three-Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), a beloved local cleric is poisoned one night at a dinner party. At first, there doesn’t seem to be a motive for his murder, but when another, similar death occurs, Hercule Poirot realizes the cleric’s death is part of a pattern. Then, yet another victim dies. In the end, we find out that the murderer really didn’t have a personal animus against any of the victims; in fact, one of the victims is a complete stranger to the killer. All of the murders were committed to achieve a goal.

That’s also true in Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders). In that novel, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of his dentist. For a while, he looks among the dentists’ business and family relationships for a motive, but then, another murder occurs, and a woman who visited the dentist on the day he died disappears and later turns up dead, too. It’s soon clear that these events are all part of a bigger plan. As it turns out, the murderer has no particular feelings against any of the victims. The murders have all been committed as a means to an end, not because of any personal feeling. In fact, at the end of the novel, Poirot and the murderer have a fascinating conversation about the value of the individual human life. It’s an interesting debate about whether one person’s life might mean more than that of another person.

We see the same kind of means-to-an-end murders in Tony Hillerman’s Dance Hall of the Dead, in which Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police investigates the disappearance of George Bowlegs, a Navajo teenager who disappeared just after a Zuñi friend of his, Ernesto Cata, was found dead. Everyone, including the police, thinks that Bowlegs may have killed Cata. Leaphorn himself isn’t so sure about Bowlegs at first. When Bowlegs turns up dead, Leaphorn realizes there’s something much more behind these deaths then two teenagers who may have had a falling-out. As it turns out, the killer of both boys doesn’t have a personal reason for hating them. In fact, the murderer isn’t really well acquainted with the boys. They’re killed to protect a larger plan the killer had.

Novels with “impersonal murders” can be more intellectually challenging, because there’s not a limited pool of suspects that have an obvious connection to the victim. On the other hand, many people prefer novels with more “personal” murders. The argument here is that that’s more likely in real life. Where do you stand? Do you enjoy the suspense of “impersonal murders?” Do you think they’re too unrealistic?

Late-Breaking Addition to this Post:

Thanks to fellow mystery novelist Bobbi Mumm, who sent me this funny and appropriate video. I had a good laugh, and I hope you do, too : ).


  1. I like both types with the proviso they're well-written. The 'impersonal' murder can be interesting because it can be the saying of 'the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few-or the one' (to quote Star Trek). It's an opportunity for the writer to explore world events and how one death can affect the world stage.

    'Personal' murders are fun because you're dealing with human emotions and personal histories. They generally take place in one location whereas the 'impersonal' jump around to many exotic locations. 'Personal' murders could happen down the street. 'Impersonal' murders happen on the news. (or don't get told about at all!)

    Great post, Margot; as usual.


  2. Elspeath - Thanks : ). You're very kind :). Elspeth - You outline so well the advantages of each kind of murder! You're absolutely right that it can be fascinating to explore the question of whether it's worth sacrificing even one person for what seems like a larger cause. It's also interesting to get into the emotions, history, and so on that are often behind a more personal murder. As you say, though, it all depends critically on how well-written the stories are. Either can fall flat...