Saturday, May 29, 2010

"Vigilante Justice" and "Playing God" - Taking the Law Into One's Own Hands

One of the most dangerous things about taking a life is the assumption that one has the right to decide who should live and who should die. Of course, not all murders fall into this category. Many crimes of passion really don’t. But there are cases (for instance, “vigilante justice”) where one person, or a group of people, decides that some lives are inherently more valuable than others, or decides that someone deserves to die. Those cases are disturbing, not just because they involve the taking of a life (as if that weren’t already disturbing), but also because they set a frightening precedent. That’s why, in most countries, there is a system of justice that’s supposed to protect an accused person. That’s also why, for instance, there are police forces that are charged with keeping order, protecting citizens, and stopping criminals. And, that’s the reason why police officers are bound by rules and policies that prevent them from taking the law into their own hands. Most people would agree that life-and-death decisions shouldn’t be arbitrary and shouldn’t be made by just one person, or even a group of people, without the due process of law. And yet, that kind of killing does happen in real life, and certainly happens in crime fiction. In well-written crime fiction, we can sometimes even see the motivation behind people taking the law into their own hands.

Most of Agatha Christie’s novels involve due process of law. But there are a few in which Christie explores this idea of taking the law into one’s own hands. For example, in Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot investigates the stabbing death of American businessman Samuel Ratchett, while he’s on a three-day train journey on the famous Orient Express. Soon after the murder, it’s discovered that Ratchett is an alias, and that the man using it was hiding a dark and criminal past. The more that Poirot examines the case, the more he learns about that past. He finds out that Ratchett’s past has caught up with him, and that his murder was a case of what you might call “vigilante justice.”

In Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), we see another case of someone making a decision about the value of a life. In that novel, Poirot investigates the shooting death of his dentist, Henry Morley. At first, it’s believed that there may have been a personal reason for Morley’s murder. Soon, though, that’s proven wrong when one of Morley’s patients suddenly dies and then another disappears. Now, it looks as though there was more going on than the shooting of a dentist. In the end, Poirot finds out who was responsible for Morley’s death, as well as the other events in the story. As it turns out, the killer made a deliberate decision that some lives were more valuable than others, and that sacrificing a few lives was worth it for self-preservation. For instance, the killer mentions that Morley was “only a dentist” and that there are other dentists. Poirot counters this view, and although he has some sympathy with the killer, he cannot conscience the view that one life matters more than another.

In Robin Cook’s Godplayer, there’s a very interesting discussion of the value of certain kinds of lives over others – in other words, of “playing God..” In that novel, Cassandra “Cassi” Kingsley is a psychiatry resident at prestigious Boston Memorial Hospital. She and her friend, pathology resident Dr. Robert Seibert, uncover a series of unexplained deaths following what’s supposed to be routine heart surgery. The two of them work together to find out what’s going on at the hospital and at first, no-one wants to believe them. After all, they’re only residents. In the end, Cassi figures out what’s behind the deaths – almost too late. The common thread, so to speak, among the deaths is that they were all of very vulnerable patients (e.g. patients with mental retardation). In fact, the killer tells Cassi of wanting to work with “patients who deserve to live.” This book is arguably not Cook’s best effort. However, it does raise important (and troubling) questions of who should decide which lives are valuable and which aren’t.

Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone also takes up this question. That’s the story of the murder of a Senegalese man who’s in Venice illegally. Like many other such people, he sells purses in an open-air market – until the day when he’s shot. At first, no-one even wants to investigate the murder. The man is only a vu comprá, or street peddler, after all, and his life doesn’t mean very much. When Commissario Guido Brunetti perseveres in the investigation, he finds out that the man’s death was connected to a fortune in stolen diamonds. Admittedly, this novel doesn’t focus on “vigilante justice,” but it does address the theme of whose life is valuable and whose isn’t. One message Burnetti gets in the novel is that some murders are more “worth” investigating than others, because some lives matter more than others.

We see several examples of taking the law into one’s own hands in Leon’s Suffer the Little Children, in which Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello investigate a possible baby trafficking ring. In the course of their investigation, they find connections between the illegal selling of babies and some illegal pharmacy practices that Vianello had already been investigating. Brunetti and Vianello find that one of the figures behind the crimes they’re looking into is a self-declared moral arbiter who’s been using privileged information to impose a particular moral code. Another person behind the events is quite candid with Brunetti about the value of some kinds of people as opposed to others, and also uses privileged information (and power) to impose those beliefs. In this case, the character has made personal use of the law because of those beliefs. And in the end, one of the culprits is personally attacked when another character decides to wreak personal vengeance instead of using the established system of law.

There’s a chilling example of taking the law into one’s own hands in Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. Seaton is a former candidate for the ministry who’s been disgraced and relegated to the position of undermaster at the grammar school in the Scottish town of Banff. One morning, he finds the body of Patrick Davidson, the apothecary’s assistant, in his classroom. Almost immediately, Seaton’s friend Charles Thom is arrested and jailed for the crime. Since he was Davidson’s rival for Marion Arbuthnott, the apothecary’s daughter, he’s a logical suspect. Thom begs Seaton to clear his name and Seaton agrees. He tries to get help from Marion Arbuthnott, but soon, she, too, is dead. At first, her death is put down to suicide, but it’s soon established that she was poisoned. There’s no real investigation into her death, though, at first, because the rumor soon gets around that Marion was a witch. Rather than wait for any establishment of that fact, the locals of Banff engage in a terrifying display of “mob justice” when they take her body and burn it at the stake. In the end, Seaton discovers who was behind both Davidson’s and Marion Arbuthnott’s death, but not before he comes close to death himself.

Interestingly enough, some of our favorite fictional sleuths take the law into their own hands at times. There are examples from Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Jo Nesbø, among others. In all of those cases, we may not condone the idea of taking the law into one’s own hands, but we still cheer the sleuth on. The question of how far we can go in taking the law into our own hands is not a simple one. That’s why both sides of this issue are explored in well-written crime fiction. Have you enjoyed novels that explore “vigilante justice” and “playing God?” Which ones have you liked?


  1. Interesting post! I enjoyed both "And Then There Were None" and "Murder on the Orient Express"--both vigilante-style (although the former one wasn't sleuth-related)...both were excellent. I didn't agree with the process in "And Then There Were None," but I did with "Orient." :)

  2. Elizabeth - Oh, thank you for mentioning And Then There Were None! That's one of my favorite novels, and certainly a fine example of "vigilante justice." It's hard to agree with the killer's logic in that novel, although it's so compelling, isn't it? And I, too, found it easy to agree with the logic behind Orient.

  3. Given I've just been watching Death Note again, the idea of whether it is right for an individual to judge another is something that has been playing heavily on my mind. the whole concept is that Light wants to make the world a better place by killing off criminals and because of that becomes the world's worst serial killer ever.
    It is always an interesting question because it is difficult to know exactly how anyone would act in a given situation. Thanks so much for sharing this post.

  4. Cassandra - Ooooh, Death Note. I admit I'm not really an anime person, and haven't really seen a whole lot of that show, but it is interesting. You're right that it raises some fascinating questions about who should judge others, and what that can lead to. It's true, too; we don't always know what we might do in a similar situation...

  5. Stories about vigilante justice are intriguing. I'd say Murder on the Orient Express tops my list. Thought provoking post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - Thanks : ). Yeah, that's a very good one, isn't it? It's one of my top ten Christies, actually.

  7. Both Hakan Nesser's Borkmann's Point and his Woman With Birthmark are about vigilante justice, or perhaps even justified vigilantism.
    I like the way you used the phrase "established system of justice" in your comments on Donna Leon's Suffer the Little Children. Is there such a thing in Italy? ;o)
    Only joking.

  8. Norman - Thanks for mentioning the Nesser books. That's an interesting term you use - justified vigilantism. It's certainly appropriate, and I think I may co-opt it : ).

    About the established system of law? I think Commissario Brunetti would wonder the same thing... ; ). One of the things that I find interesting about the way Brunetti copes is his adaptability. He knows how the system really works, and he uses it.

  9. My current novel touches on a woman taking the law into her own hand. She thinks it will solve her problems but in the end, she caused more.


  10. Clarissa - That sounds really intriguing. In fact, the more I learn about what you're writing, the more interesting it sounds. I am eager to read your work.