Monday, March 15, 2010

There aren't really "cookie-cutter" murderers..

When we think about murderers, we generally don’t think about nice, friendly people. In fact, the stereotype of the murderer is of a nasty person, perhaps lurking around a corner, who’s motivated by greed, fear, revenge, envy or lust to kill. The reality is, there are all kinds of murderers, including quiet, unassuming murderers and sometimes, murderers with very pleasant personalities. That’s part of what can make it difficult to figure out who the murderer is in a mystery; there’s no “stock” murderer with a certain type of personality. At least not in well-written crime fiction.

Several of Agatha Christie’s novels feature “nontypical”, and sometimes very pleasant murderers. For example, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of Roger Ackroyd, a retired tycoon. He had a large fortune to leave, and several financially strapped relations, so there’s no lack of suspects. At first, Acroyd’s adopted son, Captain Ralph Paton, seems indicated. He was known to be desperate for money, and he’d quarreled with Acrkroyd about finances. Besides, Paton disappeared right after the murder and hasn’t accounted for himself. No-one in the village of King’s Abbott wants Paton to be guilty; he’s got a charming personality and he’s popular in the village. Poirot agrees to look into the murder. As he (and the reader) get to know the various suspects, he finds that some are very pleasant, and several are not. In the end, we find that personality has nothing to do with whether a person kills. In fact, personality is one “red herring” that Christie includes in this novel.

That’s also the case in Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). In that novel, Miss Emily Arundell writes to Poirot, asking him to look into a delicate matter for her. She isn’t specific in her letter, but the letter intrigues Poirot, who visits the town of Market Basing. He and Hastings are too late, though; by the time they get to Miss Arundell’s home, she’s already dead. Her death was put down to more or less natural causes, since she wasn’t in good health to begin with, but Poirot begins to think she was murdered, especially since she’d had an accident a week before her death. Miss Arundell was wealthy, and all of her relations are eager for their share of her fortune, so there’s more than one suspect. As Poirot and Hastings meet all them, they find that several (although certainly not all) of them are pleasant, even charming. This makes figuring out who the killer is that much more difficult, since it’s hard to believe that a nice, friendly person would turn out to be a killer. In the end, though, that’s what happens. The murderer turns out to be someone who certainly doesn’t come across as nasty, scheming or bitter. In fact, in this novel, Christie addresses this issue of the murderer’s personality quite directly. In one scene, Poirot and Hastings are discussing one of the characters, a very congenial person. Hastings doubts that this person would be guilty, but Poirot says:

"I am reflecting on various people, [He names some names]."
For a moment I did not understand these references to people who had figured in past cases.
"What of them?" I asked.
"They were all delightful personalities..."

There are spoilers, too, in this conversation, to several other Christie novels in this story, so if you’re not familiar with Christie’s work, this is probably not the novel I’d suggest as your first.

Colin Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours also features some very pleasant, likeable suspects. Laura Stratton and her husband, Ed, are among a group of Americans who are on a tour of historic English cities, among them Oxford. While they’re in Oxford, Laura is planning to donate the Wolvercote Tongue, part of a famous Saxon belt buckle, to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. Dr. Theodore Kemp, curator of the museum, will accept the donation as part of a public event. Everything goes wrong when Laura Stratton suddenly dies on the day the tour group arrives at Oxford. Then, the Wolvercote Tongue is stolen. The next day, Kemp is murdered. At first, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are assigned to investigate the theft of the Wolvercote Tongue. When Kemp dies, though, it’s clear that there’s more to this mystery than a simple theft, so they investigate the murder and theft as connected events which, as it turns out, they are. In the process of finding out what happened to the Wolvercote Tonge, and to Kemp, Morse and Lewis get to know the other tourists, as well as the Oxford and other local staff who host them. What we find as we meet these people, many of whom are suspects, is that most of them are really nice people. So is most of the staff. It’s hard to believe any of them as a killer; yet it turns out that a friendly personality is no guarantee against being a murderer.

Neither is an unassuming personality. We see that in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, in which Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey investigate some frightening events at Shrewsbury College, Oxford, which is Harriet Vane’s alma mater. The Warden of Shrewsbury asks Harriet to try to find out who’s behind a series of anonymous letters, vandalism and other dangerous mischief at Shrewsbury. Harriet reluctantly agrees, and spends a few months at Shrewsbury, under the pretext of doing some research. As she investigates, the incidents escalate, to the point where Harriet herself is attacked and nearly killed. Wimsey goes to help Harriet investigate, and in the end, they find that the person who’s behind these events is an unassuming person whom one wouldn’t have suspected.

There’s another example of a killer with an unassuming personality in John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler. Arnold Weschler is a Professor of Classics at Hewes College during a time of radical student movements and demonstrations. One autumn, the normally-quiet campus is the target of a radical student group, and one of its leaders seems to be David Weschler, Arnold Weschler’s estranged brother. One day, Winthrop Dohrn, President of Hewes College, summons Weschler to his office to ask him to contact his brother and persuade him and his group to leave the campus. Weschler is very reluctant to get involved, but, with his own position at the college at stake, he agrees to contact David. His awkward contact with his brother also puts Weschler in contact with the student group and its members. As he gets to know the members, Weschler begins to have some sympathy for some of them. Then, the president’s grand-daughter is kidnapped. Next, a bomb explodes at the president’s home, killing him. Now, Weschler’s not sure whom he can trust, since it now seems that at least one person in the student group has gone beyond demonstrating and has committed kidnapping, arson and murder. In the end, Weschler finds out who the killer is; as it turns out, the killer is, again, someone with a pleasant, unassuming (though not diffident) personality that one wouldn’t have expected.

Emma Lathan’s Murder to Go also features a killer who doesn’t fit the stereotypical “mold” of a killer who’s nasty and obviously bitter. In that novel, John Putnam Thatcher, Lathen’s sleuth, investigates a series of poisonings and two deaths that occur when a fast-food company, Chicken Tonight, starts making a profit. Chicken Tonight has introduced a new recipe, and its franchisees are happy to stock it, since it seems to be popular. Then, several people who’ve ordered that recipe are sickened, and one actually dies. Now, questions are raised about Chicken Tonight’s viability, and a pending merger with Southeastern Insurance is put in doubt. That’s when Thatcher gets involved, as his bank, the Sloan Guaranty Trust, is a company backer. At first, the poisonings are blamed on Clyde Sweeney, a former delivery driver who’d been fired. Later, though, Sweeney turns up dead. Now, Thatcher has to find out who else would have wanted Chicken Tonight to fail. In the end, it turns out that the killer isn’t a person with a strong, “standout” personality.

The killer with the unassuming personality can be a little risky, since it’s easy to make the killer too unlikely to be believable, or so unassuming that readers immediately guess that person is the killer. Still, there are killers with such temperaments. There are also killers with friendly personalities, funny senses of humor and a great deal of charm and charisma. Because humans are so different, so are murderers; there isn’t a “cookie-cutter” kind of murderer. Which novels feature your most memorable murderers (no spoilers, please!)?


  1. Reading your post the thing I keep thinking about was Ted Bundy. He was a charming, good looking guy that no one ever suspected. On the surface he did not fit the murder profile, especially a serial killer. And there was a book written about him if I remember right.

  2. Mason - Ted Bundy is a great example of a killer who didn't "seem like a killer." In fact, that was his stock in trade; he was charming and good looking enough to attract his victims and catch them unawares.

    There've actually been several books about Bundy. Two of them are Robert Keppel's The Riverman: Ted Bundy and I Hunt For the Green River Killer, and Richard Larson's Bundy, the Deliberate Stranger. A very recent one is Kevin Sullivan's The Bundy Murders: A Comprehensive History.

  3. This is a very hard post to respond to, Margot, without revealing spoilers, as you write!
    One novel that falls into this category is Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin, which I recommend very highly for many reasons, including this one.
    Often it does not really work. I think Sophie Hannah tries this approach with varying degrees of success. I have just read her latest, A Room Swept White, and I am not sure how well she does it....
    Another example is the subplot, or second thread, in Deon Meyer's debut, Dead before Dying, in which a bank robber charms the tellers into handing over the cash.

  4. Maxine - I know what you mean; it was challenging to write the post, too, and I appreciate your thinking it through and responding. I agree with you about Sophie Hannah. I haven't read A Room Swept White, but some of her other stuff is uneven that way.

    I'm very glad you mentioned sub-plots, too. There are several novels where sub-plots feature some very charming (or otherwise, not stereotypical) criminals. The first one that came to my mind is in Alexander McCall Smith's The Kalahari Typing School for Men, where Grace Makutsi gets thorougly charmed into having a relationship with a man who's already married. There are lots of other examples, too, of course...

  5. Another outstanding post, Margot. I love your photo, too!

    I've been reading a lot of true crime, and I have to say that the DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY by Erik Larson features an unlikely serial killer: a doctor. It takes place in the late 1800s during the Chicago World's Fair. What he did was absolutely chilling.

  6. Kathleen - Thanks :). You're very kind. I know that you enjoy reading true crime; it's always good to get your insights from that and from your experience on the police force. Devil in the White City sounds like a very interesting read; I didn't even know there was a series of killings during the Chicago World's Fair. I'll have to check that out. Thanks for letting me know :).

  7. I finished re-reading "Dumb Witness" on the train today. Dame Christie has always been a favourite, but it was your blog that inspired me to dig out her books again.

  8. Rayna - I am so sorry not to have responded to your comment sooner - my apologies!! I'm glad that you've been thinking of re-reading Christie's work again. It's true that I'm very much biased, but even so, I think that Christie at her weakest is stronger than many other writers at their best; I've re-read her books many times and get something new from them every time I do.